Do Brain Games Work?

Do Brain Games Work?
BEST OF SCIENCE | APRIL 8, 2013
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A few new studies, including one meta-analysis, suggest brain games don’t make you any better at anything but playing brain games.

Think you can make yourself smarter with brain-training software? New studies suggest that so-called brain games don’t improve players’ thinking or IQ, they just make you better at playing the games, the New Yorker reported.

The studies come after of a decade of spotty research suggesting that brain games do work–and the launch of companies such as Cogmed, Lumosity, Jungle Memory and CogniFit that sell brain games for kids, older adults and everyone in between. The New Yorker talked with Cogmed executives, who insisted the new research was flawed. Meanwhile, the researchers involved in the skeptical studies say it’s unethical to sell software that doesn’t work, especially to vulnerable audiences such as kids with learning disorders or older adults worried about cognitive decline.

The skeptical studies include:

  1. A study comparing dual n-back training–a favorite training program among avid self-improvers in Silicon Valley–with a placebo game and with not playing any games at all in healthy young adults. The researchers, from three different U.S. universities, found the games improved people’s ability in the games.. but not in independent tests of fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, multitasking or other capabilities.
  2. A study that tried to replicateprevious research showing that certain mental exercises improved fluid intelligence, which is important to learning and is associated with professional success. The newer study wasn’t able to reproduce the effects of the previous experiments.
  3. A so-called “meta-analysis” thatreviewed 23 previous studies of brain games, weighting the studies by how rigorous they were and how many study participants they included. Like the other skeptical studies, the meta-analysis found that people just got better at the games they played, but their skills didn’t transfer elsewhere, such as people’s verbal and nonverbal ability, arithmetic, or attention.

The New Yorker covered the objections brain-game company Cogmed had with the studies’ conclusions. Neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, who led a brain-games study in 2002 that showed the games did work for children and is now a paid Cogmed consultant, also said the meta-analysis was poorly done, though reporter Gareth Cook pointed out that it the analysis was published in one of the field’s top journals.

One thing that the New Yorker piece doesn’t do is distinguish between how brain games work for normally developing kids, kids with learning disabilities, normally developing adults, and adults with diagnosed cognitive decline. The stakes are different for each group, so it’d be helpful to know if there are differences. It may be that the science doesn’t yet exist for such a detailed breakdown: Skeptical Studies No. 1 and No. 2 were performed in normally developing adults, while the meta-analysis looked at studies about brain games performed in all kinds of people.

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Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk

Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk
WIRED SCIENCE | APRIL 8, 2013
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Sounds made by a little-known monkey living in Ethiopia’s mountain grasslands may hint at the origins of human speech. Unlike most other primates, which communicate in strings of short, relatively flat-toned syllables, geladas possess uncannily human-like vocal tempos and undulations.

“When we first started working with geladas in 2006, we noticed sounds like people were talking around you,” said evolutionary biologist Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan. “Most primates only make a few sounds, but geladas produce a complex stream with a rhythm similar to language.”

Key to the gelada vocalizations,described today by Bergman in Current Biology, is the ability to smack their lips. Underlying that seemingly simple action is a rich synchrony of lips, tongue and the hyoid bone beneath them.

Earlier research on lip-smacking in macaque monkeys found it distinct from lip-moving while eating, and also noted an intriguing correspondence to the universal rhythms of human language.

Though the monkeys moved their lips without without actually vocalizing, the researchers speculated that lip-smacking could have been a precursor to human speech, setting a tempo for what would become the sonic foundations of language.

Bergman builds on that notion. He shows that geladas sometimes use lip-smacking to shape their calls, giving them a human language-like quality. Geladas were already known to possess an extremely rich vocal repertoire; lip-smacking adds to that richness.

An open question, said Bergman, is whether the lip-smacking vocalizations have some special significance. “We don’t know much about the function,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if the fact they produce these complex sounds allows them to communicate things other monkeys might not be able to.”

Image: Alastair Rae/Flickr

The possibility that early ancestors of humans may have shared this ability raises a linguistic chicken-egg-problem, Bergman added.

“The ability to produce complex sounds might have come first. Then, when we could do that, we could attach meanings and communicate in more sophisticated ways,” he said. “Or it could be that, as we needed to communicate more, we developed an ability to produce a greater variety of sounds.”

Whatever the order, vocal complexity is likely intertwined with social complexity. Baboons are closely related to geladas, but use fewer vocalizations and don’t smack their lips. Perhaps not coincidentally, baboons live in relatively small, short-lived groups.

Gelada groups stay together for many years, with females having especially long-lived relationships. Often groups come together in bands of several hundred individuals. “It’s a very complex social system. They have some of the largest groups of any primate,” Bergman said. “These very large group structures may be linked to vocal complexity. There’s some evidence across primate that bigger groups make more sounds.”… Read more

Smell Receptors In Heart Suggest Nose Isn’t Only Odor-Detecting Organ

Smell Receptors In Heart Suggest Nose Isn’t Only Odor-Detecting Organ
SCIENCE NEWS ON HUFFINGTON POST | APRIL 8, 2013
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Your nose may not be the only organ able to sense the enticing aromas of roasted coffee or freshly baked bread. Such sensors are also found in the heart, lungs and blood, research shows.

“But does this mean that, for instance, the heart ‘smells’ the steak you just ate? We don’t know the answer to that question,” Peter Schieberle, a food chemist at the Technical University of Munich and the German Research Center for Food Chemistry, in Germany, said in a statement. Schieberle described the fragrant findings Sunday (April 7) at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans.

When airborne chemical compounds from food and other substances enter the nose, they bind to olfactory receptors there, triggering a cascade that tells the brain what something smells like. These receptors were thought to exist only in the mucus-laden tissue in the back of the nose, but growing evidence suggests that other organs have them, too.

For example, sperm cells are known to contain odor receptors, which are thought to play a role in helping thesperm locate the egg. Growing evidence now suggests these receptors are also found in the heart, lungs and blood.

Schieberle and his colleagues recently found that human blood cells are attracted to molecules associated with certain odors. When scientists put blood cells on one side of partitioned chamber and an odor compound on the other side, the blood cells migrated in the direction of the odor. It’s unclear whether these odor compounds work the same way in the body as they do in the nose, Schieberle said, but he hopes to find out. [10 Amazing Facts About the Heart]

The science of taste

Schieberle works in the field of “sensomics,” which seeks to understand which of the myriad aroma compounds are important for human taste and smell. Sensomics helps explain what makes foods taste, feel or smell appetizing or unappealing.

In particular, Schieberle is interested in the complex aromas involved in foods such as chocolate or coffee. In his lab, researchers break smells down into their chemical components, and recombine those components in unique ways for taste tests. Researchers found that coffee contains as many as 1,000 odor components, but only 25 of these components bind to odor receptors to produce a smell.

Odor receptors are a kind of G-protein-coupled receptor, which earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2012. While there are about 400 of these smell receptors in the human body, there are only about 27 taste receptors. Until now, most research on food and taste has focused on the components in food, rather than how they are perceived, Schieberle said…. Read more

Seeking Immortality? So Have Others…

Seeking Immortality? So Have Others…
DISCOVERY NEWS | APRIL 8, 2013
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Patients at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation are placed into these large metal casings that are cooled to -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

Modern technology has made immortality seem somehow within reach, even if the science for eternal life still appears generations away.

That’s the thinking behind one avenue of self-preservation:cryonics.

Cryonics is the process of preserving recently deceased individuals with the intention of reviving them using future medical science and technology. The individuals are frozen after their hearts stopped, so they have died legally, but before their brains are dead.

The Alcor Life Extension Foundation based out of Scottdale, Ariz., is one organization offering to preserve individuals in liquid nitrogen after death in the hopes of being able to live again.

To have the entire body preserve costs around $150,000. For $50,000, an individual can have just their brains held in cryonic suspension.

Red Meat Clogs Arteries Because of Gut Bacteria

Red Meat Clogs Arteries Because of Gut Bacteria
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: LATEST NEWS | APRIL 7, 2013
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NOT JUST THE FAT: Bacteria living in the human gut can turn the nutrients in lean red meat into an artery-clogging menace. Image: Courtesy of The Beef Checkoff

From Nature magazine.

Lean steak is low in fat andcholesterol and high in protein — qualities normally considered healthy. But eating a lot of it can still cause heart disease. Researchers have now laid the blame on bacteria in the human gut that convert a common nutrient found in beef into a compound that may speed up the build-up of plaques in the arteries.

The results are published in Nature Medicine today. Co-author Stanley Hazen, head of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says that the study could signal a new approach to diet and health. In some cases, an individual’s collection of intestinal microbes may be as important to their diet as anything on a nutrition label, he says. “Bacteria make a whole slew of molecules from food,” he says, “and those molecules can have a huge effect on our metabolic processes.”

Consumption of red meat has been found to increase the risk of death from heart disease, even when controlling for levels of fat and cholesterol. To find out why, Hazen and his colleagues gave the nutrient l-carnitine — found in red meat and dairy products — to 77 volunteers, including 26 who were vegans or vegetarians. One committed vegan even agreed to eat a 200-gram sirloin steak.

Tests showed that consuming l-carnitine increased blood levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), a compound that, evidence suggests, can alter the metabolism of cholesterol and slow the removal of cholesterol that accumulates on arteries’ walls.

But even when they took l-carnitine supplements, vegans and vegetarians made far less TMAO than meat eaters. Fecal studies showed that meat eaters and non-meat eaters also had very different types of bacteria in their guts. Hazen says that a regular diet of meat probably encourages the growth of bacteria that can turn l-carnitine into TMAO.

Double checking

To further make the case, researchers checked the levels of l-carnitine in the blood of nearly 2,600 people who were having elective heart check-ups. By itself, the nutrient didn’t seem to make a difference. However, people who had high levels of both l-carnitine and TMAO were prime targets for heart disease, further evidence that it’s the bacterial alchemy — not the l-carnitine alone — that poses the real threat.

Finally, the researchers found that feeding l-carnitine to mice doubled the animals‘ risk of developing arterial plaques, but only when the mice had their usual gut bacteria. When the animals were treated with gut-clearing antibiotics, l-carnitine in the diet did not encourage plaques.

Daniel Rader, director of preventive cardiovascular medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that the study makes a “fairly compelling” case that intestinal bacteria feeding onl-carnitine increase the risk of heart disease.

The finding should give pause not only to meat lovers, but also to people who take l-carnitine supplements, which are marketed with the promise that they promote energy, weight loss and athletic performance, says Hazen. “None of those claims have been proven,” he says. “I see no reason why anyone needs to take it.

Will CDC’s Bird Flu Vaccine Work if Virus Mutates?

Will CDC’s Bird Flu Vaccine Work if Virus Mutates?
DISCOVERY NEWS | APRIL 7, 2013
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The move by U.S. health officials to start making a vaccine against the new strain of bird flu is a good idea, regardless of whether the virus ultimately changes, as flu viruses often do, experts say.

On Thursday (April 4), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it had begun work on a vaccine against H7N9, a new bird-flu virus causing illness in China. So far, health officials have reported that 16 people have become sick with the virus, six of whom died. Currently, the virus does not appear to spread between people.

The CDC plans to “build” the virus to use it in its vaccine, rather than wait for a sample to ship from China, the New York Times reported. Using the H7N9 genetic sequence as a blueprint, CDC researchers will synthesize genes for part of the virus and attach them to the “backbone” of another virus known to grow well in labs, the Times said. Making the vaccine is just a precaution — health officials aren’t sure yet if they’ll need to use it.

NEWS: Pandemic? How Mutant Bird Flu Goes Airborne

“I think it’s a good idea to start with anything we can,” said Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. He noted that it could take at least a month to make even a provisional vaccine, and six months to manufacture one that can be used on a wider scale.

Even if the H7N9 virus changes during the time it takes to make a vaccine — for instance, the virus could mutate so that it’s able to spread between people — having a vaccine will still be an advantage.

“Protection, even if it’s partial protection, is better than no protection,” Monto said.

Dr. Richard Webby, a bird-flu expert and infectious disease researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., said that while there’s a possibility the virus could mutate to spread between people, such a change would not necessarily impact the effectiveness of a vaccine that we make now.

Starting early is important because it could take some time to figure out how to make an effective vaccine. Researchers know from previous experience with this family of viruses (H7 viruses) that people may need two shots in order to build up immunity, and the vaccine might need an additional component, called an adjuvant, to boost its effectiveness, Monto said.

NEWS: New Bird Flu Strain in China Prompts Pigeon Kills

If the H7N9 virus is still causing illness by the time researchers are finished making a provisional vaccine, known as a seed vaccine, it’s almost certain that at least some batches will be manufactured (though not necessarily used), Webby said. However, before it’s manufactured, it will need to undergo safety tests, Monto said.

Researchers are concerned about H7N9 not only because it’s novel, but also because it has genetic markers that suggest it has adapted to grow in humans. However, it’s possible this marker only shows up once the virus infects people, and the virus does not naturally have this marker when it infects birds, Webby said. Researchers need to find the source of the virus — be it birds or another organism — to know whether the marker is inherent in the virus.

Today (April 5), the CDC said there is no need for the general public to be alarmed about this virus, because it does not appear to be spreading between people, according to NBC News.

Antiviral medications appear to work against the virus, which is good news, Monto said. However, antivirals have not yet been used to treat patients with H7N9, according to the World Health Organization. (The medications must be given very early on in the course of infection in order to be effective.)

Pass it on: Starting work on a vaccine against the new bird flu is a good idea, experts say.

More from MyHealthNewsDaily.com:

This article originally appeared onMyHealthNewsDaily.com. Copyright 2013 MyHealthNewsDaily, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

New Giant Tarantula Species on the Move

New Giant Tarantula Species on the Move
WIRED SCIENCE | APRIL 6, 2013
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On Apr. 2, we reported the discovery of a presumptive new species of tarantulain Sri Lanka, set apart from its relatives by unique markings on its abdomen and legs. Called Poecilotheria rajaei, the spiders can span 8 inches across — which, according to our own careful measurements, means they’re large enough to easily latch onto the average human face (or your cat’s entire head, but too big to comfortably lurk in your shoe. You choose).

Now, there’s a video of the arachnid superstar, shot by researcher and discoverer Ranil Nanayakkara. Watching this behemoth crawl around is a surprisingly tactile experience. Flashing bits of bright yellow, the spider grasps onto and climbs over a bit of bark, then creeps across a pile of leaves. And though the video is slightly out of focus, the spider’s beautiful geometric patterns are clearly visible.

Why Dudes Who Can’t Smell Never Get Laid

Why Dudes Who Can’t Smell Never Get Laid
BEST OF SCIENCE | APRIL 5, 2013
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One of the unexpected parts of not having a sense of smell.

About 2 million people in the United States can’t smell anything. That’s got to be great if, say, you’re walking past a dumpster, but not-so-great if you’re looking for love. Research suggests that men who can’t smell have fewer sex partners than men with fully functioning nostrils. About five times fewer.

A team of researchers had already found a correlation between not having a sense of smell and having feelings of insecurity. (There are a few possibilities about why: either we can’t check ourselves for odor or we take comfort from certain smells.)A more recent study from the same researchers compared 32 people who couldn’t smell–22 women and 10 men–with a control group, asking both groups about the number of sexual partners they’d had. The question was, if people are insecure because they can’t smell, will that insecurity affect their sex lives, too?

Well, something‘s affecting their sex lives. The men, on average, had way fewer partners than the men in the control group. Curiously, the women without a sense of smell had about the same number of partners as the control group women. But compared with the control group (and the men), the women ranked themselves as more insecure in their current romantic relationship.

So what’s going on here? Why didn’t men and women react to their own inability to smell the same way? Good question! And it’s hard to say, as Research Digest points out.

Here are a few theories on why the results came out the way they did.

  • While women without a sense of smell seemed to lack confidence in relationships, according to the study, the men apparently lacked socialconfidence. That might make them more timid in social situations, and explain the below-typical number of sex partners. (Although that’s discounting the opposite: that these men are more secure in their relationships. In fact, men in the study rated their relationship security slightly higher than the male control group did.)
  • There’s evidence that a specific smell may be more heavily associated with a relationship for women than it is for men. That would explain why lacking a sense of smell would coorelate more with women feeling insecure in a relationship than men.
  • It’s important to remember, and even the researchers admit, that this was a study with a very small sample size. It’s entirely possible that a larger group would show different results.

But the results here are a little sad. Don’t be self-conscious, non-smellers of either gender. There could be a silver lining.

China reports 2 more cases of new bird flu virus

China reports 2 more cases of new bird flu virus
AP SCIENCE | APRIL 6, 2013
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BEIJING (AP) — Shanghai has reported two more cases of human infection of a new strain of bird flu, raising the number of cases in eastern China to 18. Six of the people who contracted the virus have died.

Health officials believe people are contracting the H7N9 virus through direct contact with infected fowl and say there’s no evidence the virus is spreading easily between people.

Shanghai’s government said Saturday the latest victims are a 74-year-old peasant and a 66-year-old retiree. The city has been ordered by the agriculture ministry to halt its live poultry trade and slaughter all fowl in markets where the virus has been found.

The capital cities of the neighboring provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu also have suspended sales of live poultry. Both provinces have reported H7N9 cases.

New Bird Flu Strain in China Prompts Pigeon Kills

New Bird Flu Strain in China Prompts Pigeon Kills
DISCOVERY NEWS | APRIL 5, 2013
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Six deaths announced in the past six days from a new strain of bird flu in China has led authorities to kill all of the pigeons being sold for meat at a Shanghai market.

The virus, H7N9, has infected at least 14 people so far, most likely through direct contact with birds. No person-to-person transmission has been detected, but health officials and scientists are closely monitoring the virus for similarities to past outbreaks.

NEWS: Formerly Banned Bird Flu Studies Suggest Pandemic

This particular strain may be trickier to detect because it can infect birds without any noticeable effect on their health, The Associated Press reports.

“In the past usually you would see chickens dying before any infections occurred in humans, but this time we’ve seen that many species of poultry actually have no apparent problems, so that makes it difficult because you lose this natural warning sign,” David Hui, an infectious diseases expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told The Associated Press.

Virus-Like Particles May Fast-Track Vaccines

The virus may have undergone a recent mutation that makes it easier to pass on to other animals, scientists have said. Health officials put those who work closely with birds on alert. Some of the 14 people infected were sicked weeks ago, but weren’t diagnosed with H7N9 until recently.

Although pigeons have been identified as the carriers so far, it’s likely that other types of poultry are also carrying the virus, Hui said.