Prophetic Neurones


Being able to tell the future is a superpower that we have all wanted at some point or another in our life. And although it seems like science-fiction material, we actually do have this ability. Granted, it is not as accurate or far-reaching as we would like, but it is still quite impressive and useful at a smaller scale.

In our everyday lives, we often encounter situations where we need to predict what other people are going to do. These can range from normal conversations to arguments, or even playing games. It is precisely this last scenario which can be used to investigate how exactly we are able to foretell other people’s actions.

The game in particular is called Prisoner’s Dilemma, and the experiment consists of having monkeys play this game and examine any patterns in their actions. In this game, two people face each other with two options: either cooperate or refuse to work together. Every different combination of choices yields different results. For example, if one declines and the other cooperates, the one that declines gets a great reward, whereas the other doesn’t. If both cooperate, they both get a smaller reward. If both refuse to work together, they get the smallest prize. So to win the most in this game you have to be good at predicting what your opponent will do and acting accordingly.

A team at Harvard Medical School made monkeys play this game hundreds of times, but did it so that each time the monkeys could see what their companion had chosen. This way, they could base their decision for the next turn on what the opponent had done and predict how they could get the greatest reward.

anterior cingulate

Highlighted in yelllow is the anterior cingulate, where these ‘clairvoyant’ neurones are found

At the same time, their brains were monitored. Specifically, an area called the anterior cingulate, which has been shown to be involved in the decision making process. The results showed that some neurones in this area acted according to a pattern, depending on the decisions the monkeys took. But to make the results more reliable and make sure these cells were responsible, they used some exterior electrical impulses to inhibit them and prevent them from working correctly. By doing this, the monkeys became more selfish and refused to cooperate more often, even though tactically it made no sense, as it would result in a lower prize. Since confusing these neurones caused the monkeys to make different choices, especially involving disconnection from their partner and a lack of prediction of their movements, it is safe to say that the specific group of cells in the anterior cingulate have an effect on foretelling the future.

Although this theory has only been tested in monkeys, the process in humans is thought to work in a similar way, and studying it can help study social interactions between humans, in light of diseases such as autism.

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2014 Science Highlights: Part 1


Another year passes, so it’s time for another round up of the most interesting scientific events that have happened in the last 12 months. 2014 has been a year full of fascinating discoveries, both in this planet and outside of it, but with some disappointing realisations too.

 1. The Ebola Crisis Continues

ebola

The Ebola virus keeps taking lives and will continue to do so until we find a treatment

The Ebola virus gained a lot of attention this autumn when it grew to an unprecedented size: it became the larges Ebola outbreak in history. In fact, the WHO declared it a global public health emergency and many countries and organisations rushed to contribute some help. At first contained in West Africa, there were a couple of isolated cases in Europe and the USA which caused even more panic, but it has died down. As with many catastrophes, after the initial spotlight, the Ebola pandemic has lost a lot of attention from the public, even though it has not stopped growing. However, it is slightly more controlled, and due to all the press it received, plenty of research is going into treating it, which should hopefully yield some treatments or a vaccine.

2. Stem Cells Stump

Mouse embryo with beating heart

The original STAP cells, which held so much potential, but turned out to be too good to be true

There was a great flurry of excitement at the beginning of this year when researchers in Japan claimed to have created stem cells by simply dipping blood cells into acid. The STAP (Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency) cells were great for medical research since they got rid of the ethical issues of using embryonic stem cells. The potential of this easy and cheap method were immense, so as soon as the results were published, many scientists from around the world tried to carry out the experiment themselves. But they couldn’t. The results couldn’t be replicated. A more in depth investigation showed that the results of the original experiment were not accurate, and now the theory has, unfortunately, been disproved.

3. Rosetta and Philae

rosetta philae

A representation showing Rosetta (left) and Philae (right) on the surface of 67P

You can’t summarise 2014 without mentioning either the Rosetta spacecraft or the Philae lander. They have both accomplished feats in science which could have only been dreamed of. Rosetta has been in space for 10 years in pursuit of the 67PN comet which is travelling through our Solar System. This year it finally reached it and is now moving relative to it, becoming the first object to rendezvous with a comet. But Rosetta is not the only one who’s kept busy. After rendezvousing with the comet, Rosetta released Philae, a small robot whose objective was to land on 67P. And so it did, although it was a bumpy ride. Unfortunately, it ran out of battery soon after the landing, making it impossible for it to analyse the comet and take samples; its original purpose. But 67P is supposed to pass close to the Sun at some point, which might reactivate Philae and help it complete its mission

4. Dusty Waves

primordial waves

The graph showing what scientists thought were primordial waves, the proof of inflation theory, but is actualy dust

There was another fascinating discovery this year, in which a special type of wave was detected coming from space, with massive implications. Called primordial waves, they are theorised to have been produced during the Big Bang, and if their existence was confirmed, the theory of inflation, which states that the universes started expanding just after it was created would be proved. What were supposed to be these waves were then detected, and scientists were ecstatic. The Big Bang is one of the most confusing aspects of science, and this discovery could help clarify it greatly. But again, after further investigation, the results did not look too good. The alleged ‘primordial waves’ were most likely just dust in the Universe, interfering with the results and creating false hopes.

5. Young Calls Young

blood

Blood could hold secrets for eternal youth

In a truly zombie-like procedure, scientists sewed young and old rats together so they created blood vessels between each other and shared blood. After some time, they investigated how tissues had grown and developed in the two rats and the results were utterly fascinating. The old rats had created more neural connections in their brains, their muscles had healed faster, and their heart muscles had been rejuvenated. However, the young mice suffered the opposite effects.

But scientists concentrated on the positive side, on what chemicals in the young rats caused these changes in the old ones and detected a specific protein, GDF11, which seemed to activate stem cells and cause all these beneficial effects. They also discovered chemicals in older mice which did the opposite: they made stem cells react slower, which in turn deteriorated the health of the younger rats. The next step is finding the equivalent proteins in humans, so that older people can be healed from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or arthritis.

 

Stay tuned for the more of the most interesting scientific events of 2014 in the epic conclusion: 2014 Science Highlights: Part 2.

The Scientific Event of the Year: Debate: Darwin vs. God: Part 2


Dawkins and Williams after the debate

Dawkins and Williams after the debate

Yesterday, people from all around the world were able to watch one of the most important events of the year at Oxford University or by the Internet.

At Sheldonian Theatre, zoologist Richard Dawkins debated about the origin of human nature and the universe with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The debate, considered as a battle between science and religion, was calm and polite, but with some sense of humour of the debaters.

Each debater respected and admired each other’s arguments, although after they had to argue it.

Anthony Kenny

The debate started with the philosopher Anthony Kenny asking for no applauses, and continued with the funny comment ‘I come representing ignorance’.

He actively collaborated in the debate, sometimes looking as a third debater. He gave the debate a relaxed but formal atmosphere, and asked new discussions to both debators.

Rowan Williams

One of the head of the Anglican Church’s arguments debated about conscience, and of the need of God to explain it. He also had to admit that the Bible didn’t explain scientifically the creation of the Universe, but he argued that the Bible’s authors just wrote what God told them to.

Richard Dawkins

The biologist occupied the major part of the debate, defending Darwin’s ideas about evolutionism and stating that humans are a product of only evolution, with no intervention by God.

He was sarcastic about the existence of God, but had to admit he can’t disprove the existence of God, and once, he even had to admit he did not disbelief in God totally, but thought the chances of it existing were very, very low.

If you weren’t able to see the debate, you can watch it again at http://fsmevents.com/sophiaeuropa/

The Scientific Event of the Year: Debate: Darwin vs. God


Today’s special report is dedicated to Richard Dawkins and the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s most known biologists and one of the major supporters of Darwinism. Studying zoology at Oxford, he then moved to teaching at California University. His known books, The Selfish Genes and The Extended Phenotype, have given him the title of Darwin’s Bulldog, due to its fierce defence of Darwin’s ideas.

On the other side, there is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He is also worldwide known as one of the most passionate teologists, defender of the Anglican Church, and is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. As Dawkins, he studied at Oxford, but theology. He’s done lectures in numerous universities, specially in Cambridge, where he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity, in 1989.

Returning to the news, today, Thursday the 23rd, Oxford University holds one of the most interesting and passionate debate of the year, the eternal debate of Darwin and God, at the Sheldonian Theatre.

In this debate, being the theme the nature of human beings and their origin, the biologist will defend Darwin’s ideas of evolutionism and natural selection, whilst the Archbishop will state the Church’s point of view, debating about creationism and Adam and Eve.

The tickets to this outstanding event, organised by the University Of Oxford Theology Department have already been sold out, being chaired by philosopher Anthony Kenny.

At 16:00 and until 17:30 (London UTC), people without tickets will be able to watch it live at www.originsofnature.com