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Science Snippets

This issue’s round-up of science news

By Iskra Pollak Dorocic

 

EBOLA VACCINE SUCCESS

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The West African Ebola epidemic has taken over 11,000 lives to date, and mobilized a rush to develop an effective treatment for a disease that had none. Usually vaccine development takes many years, but in this case after only 20 months the first study deemed the newly developed vaccine extremely efficient. Out of 2,014 people who had been in contact with an infected person, zero developed the disease after being vaccinated immediately after exposure. The duration of protection is still unknown, but this fast-track development of a treatment in the midst of an outbreak is unprecedented, and offers a valuable lesson for handling future epidemics. (Lancet, July 2015)

BRAIN ARCHITECTURE LINKED TO LIFESTYLE

Scientists working on the Human Connectome Project have linked brain connectivity patterns to human traits. Resting-state connectomes of 460 people’s brains were correlated to a list of 280 traits. More positive variables, such as more education completed, life satisfaction, and better memory performance showed stronger and more similar brain connectivity, while negative traits such as smoking, aggressive behavior or family history of alcohol abuse showed a weaker type of connectivity. However, the study could not distinguish whether the weakened brain connections are the cause or effect of negative traits. (Nature Neuroscience, Sept 2015)

LIFE ON MARS?

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NASA scientists have revealed strong evidence for flowing water on Mars. The news opens up the exciting possibility that life forms may exists on the red planet. But going to find these life forms will be far from easy – the risk of contaminating (or already having done so) Mars with Earth’s microbes is very high. Any future manned missions, such as NASA’s “Journey to Mars’” plan which aims to send astronauts by the 2030’s, will have to protect the Martian biosphere from humans and their many microbial companions. (Scientific American, Sept 28 2015)

PSYCHOLOGY TROUBLE

Psychology studies often catch the attention of the mainstream thanks to their catchy findings and relate-ability to everyday life. But the field of psychology has been plagued by allegations that many of its studies are not reproducible. To confront this, a recent study aimed to replicate 98 experiments published in psychology journals and see if it can independently come up with the same results. Only 39 of the 100replication attempts were successful. This troubling finding points to general problems with scientific publishing, which rewards exciting and unexpected results at a cost of reproducibility. (Science, August 2015)

SPEEDOMETER IN THE BRAIN

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How does our brain code for speed? It turns out the brain has a set of dedicated neurons that fire quickly when we move fast, and more slowly when we are unhurried. The finding comes from the laboratory of last year’s Nobel winners, May-Britt and Edvard Moser in Trondheim, who discovered the navigation system in the brain. The ‘speed cells’ may work together with the previously discovered ‘grid cells’ to make up a GPS-like positioning system in the brain. (Nature, July 2015)

 

INTRODUCING HOMO NALEDI

Scientists claim to have discovered a new species of the genus Homo, supported by over 1500 bone fragments uncovered in a South African cave. The huge find includes remains of at least 15 individuals of varying ages, making it an extremely rare find in paleontology. The bone features are varied, containing a baffling mix of ancient and more modern characteristics, making it difficult to determine where the species fits into the prehuman lineage. (eLife, September 2015)

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