Every year, Nikon asks photographers and scientists to enter their most magnificent microscopic photos into the Small World photomicography competition, and every year, they dazzle. Here are three of the coolest photos from among this year’s winners.
Jennifer Peters and Michael Taylor, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital/Nikon Small World
First Place: This winning photo depicts the blood-brain barrier, the seal between capillaries and the brain, of a live zebrafish embryo. To produce the image, researchers genetically engineered components of the barrier to fluoresce under a confocal microscope, took a series of photos at 20x magnification, then combined the images to create this one. This is believed to be the first time the developing blood-brain barrier of a live animal has been captured on film.
Our cognitive abilities tend to decline when we get older, as we have trouble remembering old facts and skills and learning new ones. But a little young blood reverses some ill effects of old age, at least in mice, researchers reported at the Society for Neuroscience conference last week.
Neuroscientist Saul Villeda and his team gave elderly mice infusions of blood from younger, sprightlier members of their species. The old mice fortified with young blood improved on learning and memory tasks, such as finding a platform submerged in water and getting conditioned (think Pavlov’s dogs) to fear situations associated with electric shocks.
When a brain-damaged person seems unresponsive, the uncertainty is excruciating. Is the person in a vegetative state, awake but not conscious, or are they minimally conscious, still retaining some shreds of awareness? Scientists can now distinguish between people in vegetative and minimally conscious states by measuring brain waves, a Belgian research team announced at the Society for Neuroscience conference last week, which could lead to a more clear-cut, objective way to make the diagnosis.
University of Alberta researcher Vivian Mushahwar with Smart-e-Pants
We often speak of the luxury of sinking into bed, but if you really sank in, and couldn’t get back up, things would go badly for you. People immobilized by neurological injuries often develop nasty wounds called bedsores, which form when soft tissues, such as the buttocks, heels, and back of the head, get pressed against the surface of a bed or wheelchair so that the tissue’s oxygen supply is cut off and it starts to die. The resulting open wounds can penetrate all the way down to muscle and bone and are often infected. Bedsores, unfortunately, affect 25 percent of nursing home residents, 10 percent of hospital patients and 60 percent of quadriplegics.
A group of Canadian researchers has looked to underwear for a potential solution. They’ve developed underpants implanted with electrodes that periodically (and painlessly) shock the gluteal muscles. The muscles contract slightly, much the same way they do when people fidget unconsciously, and relieve the pressure on tissues to give them the gasp of oxygen that they need. The team calls the invention Smart-e-Pants.
We all knew the kid who couldn’t be pried away from her book—and the kid for whom each page was an exquisite torture. Why do people take to reading with such varying amounts of ease? A new study that looked at the differences in the brain development between children with different reading abilities may help answer the question. The researchers monitored subjects over a three-year period and found some interesting correlations between reading ability and neuronal wiring.
Neuroscientists have made a brain implant that restored decision-making ability in laboratory monkeys whose faculties had been experimentally addled by cocaine. Eventually, researchers hope, such prostheses could boost cognitive abilities of brain-damaged patients.
Quick: commit this to memory. There will be a quiz.
Neuroscientists implanted artificial memories into slices of rat brain, they reported in Nature Neuroscience online. By jolting the rodent brain cells with electrical current, the researchers produced memory-like patterns of neuron activity that survived for around 10 seconds. This is the first time that researchers have created memory without a brain.
Our bodies are picky eaters when it comes to amino acids, and sometimes just a small screw-up can cause larger problems down the road. Scientists recently found an association between an amino-acid depleting mutation, and neurological problems in a small sample of humans. In mice with the same mutation, nutritional supplements reversed similar symptoms, offering the possibility of a treatment for the human disorder in the future. The results appeared in the journal Science. Read More
It doesn’t have a brain, but the Venus fly trap
can still use short-term memory.
We tend to treat plants like passive objects that can ornament a home or yard, although perhaps requiring a bit more care than, say, a vase. But plants are in fact complex organisms that can interact with their environment, sense smells and sounds, communicate with each other and with insects, and even process information.
To see how plants’ abilities stack up in comparison with human sensing and thinking, Scientific American interviewed Daniel Chamovitz, a plant biologist and author of What a Plant Knows. In addition to plants’ unexpected abilities, Chamovitz shares that they have some downright improbable skills, skills that tend to require a brain—skills like memory.
Although the spinal cord can recover from minor damage, severe injuries, like those that cause paralysis, are permanent…right? When deep cuts partially sever rats’ spinal cords, they isolate the lower part of the spine from the brain. Since that part of the spine is responsible for controlling the rats’ hind limbs, it leaves the legs paralyzed. A team of Swiss scientists tackled the challenge of restoring the brain-to-limb connection, successfully re-teaching paraplegic rats to walk, run, and climb stairs.
First, the researchers injected the isolated section of spinal cord with neuron-exciting chemicals called neurotransmitters. Then, they used electrodes on the outside of the spinal cord to send continuous electrical signals to those excited nerve cells. This chemical and electrical stimulation acted as a sort of molecular prosthesis for the signals that would normally come from the brain but that couldn’t get past the spinal injury.