; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Just the Facts?: Minding Reading Reality -- Super Giant Crustacean -- Everglades Mammal Genocide

Mind Reading May Be A Reality Soon

By looking only at maps of electrical activity in the human brain, scientists were able to tell which words a person was listening to. The discovery is a major step toward being able to “hear” the thoughts of people who can’t speak.

"If someone was completely paralyzed, or if a patient had locked-in syndrome with no movement, but the brain was still active and we could understand it well enough, we could develop devices to take advantage of that and restore communication," said Brian Pasley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

"It's still very early," he added. "And a lot of work still needs to be done."

For decades, scientists have been trying to understand how our brains manage to process audible sounds and extract abstract meaning from words and sentences. As part of that effort, lots of work on animals has helped narrow in on the brain regions involved in hearing and responding to sounds.

To see how those findings might be applicable in people, Pasley and colleagues enlisted the help of 15 patients with epilepsy or brain tumors who had electrodes attached to the surface of their brains in order to map out the source of their seizures. With electrodes in place, participants listened to about 50 different speech sounds in the form of sentences and words, both real and fake, such as "jazz," "peace," "Waldo," "fook' and "nim."

After mapping out the brain's electrical responses to each sound, the research team found that they could predict which of two sounds from the study set the brain was responding to, and they could do it with about 90 percent accuracy.

Decoding the brain's perception of sound in this way, Pasley said, is sort of like learning how a piano works.

"If you understand the relationship between the keys and their sounds, you could turn on the TV and watch someone perform with the sound off," he said. "And just by looking at what keys were being pressed, you could understand what sounds were being played."

The new work represents a substantial step forward both in what we know about how the brain processes sound and in potential applications for people with disabilities, said Jonathan Wolpaw, chief of the Laboratory of Neural Injury and Repair at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center.

Like devices that allow people to use their thoughts to move robotic arms, there might some day be brain-machine interfaces that give speech to people who have lost it.

"This work could be extremely relevant if you had someone who could no longer talk and you wanted to use the brain signals produced while the person was thinking about what he wanted to say to provide artificial speech," Wolpaw said. "The techniques they have developed are definitely relevant to how you'd go about doing that."

Still, many hurdles remain before applications become practical. The new study looked at just a limited number of sounds that make up the English language, for example, and many words are likely to produce identical electric signatures in the brain. The study also focused only on how the brain hears sounds. Further testing needs to explore whether electrical patterns are the same when people also try to say or imagine those sounds.

For now, the new work represents an important and incremental advance that will likely lead to many more.

"The results are quite encouraging," Wolpaw said. "They've gone farther than others have gone. There's obviously a long way to go, but this is a big step." - discovery


Time in Space May Alter Astronauts’ Genes

Spending long periods at low gravity may alter genes, suggests a new experiment involving a magnet-powered trick used on Earth to simulate weightlessness in space.

Subjected to magnetic levitation that generated an effect similar to microgravity experienced by astronauts orbiting Earth, fruit flies experienced changes in crucial genes.

Humans won’t necessarily respond like fruit flies, but the system is considered an useful model for probing the effects of permanent free-fall on biology. However, it’s also possible that the gene disruption was caused by magnetism, not low gravity.

“We have tried to separate the effects of microgravity and magnetism, but we’ve learned it’s not so easy,” said molecular biologist Raul Herranz of Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas in Spain, leader of the upcoming study in BMC Genomics. “We don’t know yet what is causing what — the magnetism or the microgravity?”

Sending anything into space is expensive. The cost to launch an experiment into low-Earth orbit can exceed as $10,000 per pound. Yet as the United States, Russia, China and other nations eye a human future off-Earth, understanding what will happen to our bodies is crucial.

NASA already knows that astronauts in space lose as much bone each month as they would in a year on Earth, where resisting gravity keeps muscles strong. But rigorously studying the molecular mechanisms behind those changes in humans — a large, highly complex creature — isn’t easy or ethical. As a result, researchers look to animal models in an Earth-based weightless environment.

'Everything works differently in space, including genetics.'
Machines called clinostats can simulate the effects of zero-gravity over time in plants by constantly and randomly turning them over days and weeks. But animals usually can’t survive such conditions.

Magnetic levitation of animals, discovered in the late 1990s, uses magnetic fields that are up to 350,000 stronger than Earth’s natural magnetism. The fields push on water molecules in an animal and lift it off the ground. Animals readily survive the intense magnetic fields and even display behaviors seen in space-based experiments.

“The quality you get is not same as it is in orbit, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and more convenient,” said physicist and study co-author Richard Hill of the University of Nottingham. “You can use [magnetic] levitation to try out experiments before you launch them.”

To preview what happens in space at the molecular level, Herranz and his team followed the development of fruit flies over 22-day periods in a variety of magnetically tweaked gravitational experiments.

As a rule, flies raised in low gravity developed slowly and had difficulty reproducing. When the researchers examined the flies’ genetic expression, they discovered significant increases and decreases in the activities of some 500 genes. Many regulated immune response, temperature and even stress response.

“Magnetic fields can cause things like proteins in the cell to align with the field lines, so these fields could be triggering responses we don’t yet understand,” Hill said.

However, flies exposed to powerful but non-levitating magnetism also displayed similar changes, albeit not so powerfully.

Herranz said it’s too soon to precisely separate the effects of magnetism from weightless on genetics, but that weightlessness seems to be having at least a “small effect” on gene expression. (Correcting for magnetism, weightlessness alone seemed to modulate nearly 200 genes.)

In the context of an astronaut on a multiple-year mission in zero gravity to Mars, such small effects could build up to significant risks over time.

“Everything works differently in space, including genetics,” Herranz said. “Because of this, you may need to do something to adjust, for example, things like food and nutrients and oxygen to make sure everything lasts and works for astronauts.” - wired


'Supergiant' crustacean found in deepest ocean

A huge crustacean has been found lurking 7km down in the waters off the coast of New Zealand.

The creature - called a supergiant - is a type of amphipod, which are normally around 2-3cm long.

But these beasts, discovered in the Kermadec Trench, were more than 10 times bigger: the largest found measured in at 34cm.

Alan Jamieson, from the University of Aberdeen's Oceanlab, said: "It's a bit like finding a foot-long cockroach."

"I stopped and thought: 'What on Earth was that?' This amphipod was far bigger than I ever thought possible."

The strange animals were found using a large metal trap, which had been equipped with a camera, housed in sapphire glass to keep it safe from the high pressures of the deep sea.

Seven specimens were caught in the trap and nine were captured on film by the team from the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa), in New Zealand.

The largest specimen brought back up to the ship measured 28cm in length, while the biggest spotted on camera was 34cm-long.

Amphipods have been found living in large numbers at the very bottom of ocean trenches, deep, narrow valleys in the sea floor that can plunge down to nearly 11km.

The creatures are small, but extremely active, and seem to thrive in this place where the pressure is one thousand times greater than at sea level.

The name "supergiant" was first coined after large specimens were caught in the 1980s off the coast of Hawaii.

They have been since being seen in the Antarctic, where they grew up to 10cm, but these are now dwarfed by this latest find.

Dr Ashley Rowden, from Niwa, said: "It just goes to show that the more you look, the more you find.

"For such a large and conspicuous animal to go unnoticed for so long is just testament to how little we know about life in New Zealand's most deep and unique habitat."

Over the last few years, scientists have been surprised by the life that is found in ocean trenches.

These deep-sea spots were once thought to be barren; too dark, cold and with too much pressure for anything to survive.

But researchers have found a wealth of life in the deepest of the deep.

As well as swarms of amphipods, they have uncovered shrimp-like creatures called isopods and snailfish that live 7,700m down.


Pythons Are Wiping Out Mammals in the Everglades

According to a new study, the introduction of non-native snakes into southern Florida swamps has devastated the population of small mammals, almost completely wiping out some vulnerable species. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the number raccoon and possums spotted in the Everglades has dropped more than 98%, bobcat sightings are down 87%, and rabbits and foxes have not been seen at all in years.

Large snakes, like boa constrictors, anacondas, and pythons, are not native to North America, but are popular among reptile collectors and traders who — inadvertently or not — re-introduced them to the Florida swamps about a decade ago. Since that time they caused a huge disruption to the already fragile ecosystem, threatening wildlife and even some humans. They grow fast, breed rapidly, adapt well to their environments, and prey on small animals that don't recognize them as a threat. They're also great at hiding, which makes them both deadly hunters and difficult to catch.

They will also eat just about anything, even birds, deer, and alligators. (The 162-pound Burmese python pictured above had recently swallowed a gator.) That's why the government banned the import of Burmese and other pythons last year, although (thanks to lobbying by the U.S. Association of Reptile Keepers) the reticulated python and the boa constrictor are still allowed to be traded.

Biologists say that with anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 snakes now on the loose, it's impossible to wipe out the pythons entirely, though they may still be able to contain their damage — and keep them out of other states, provided the cold weather cooperates. The weather and careless pet owners, who have established 56 non-indigenous reptile and amphibian species in the state of Florida alone. In other words, when you get bored with your exotic pets, don't just throw them out. - theatlanticwire

Invasive Pythons in the United States: Ecology of an Introduced Predator (Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book)