Blondes Unite!

Despite the ‘dumb blonde’ jokes, and Danish or Dutch teases, I have enjoyed being blonde haired. As far as hair colors go, I think being blonde is perfectly suitable. However, there are certain preconceptions about hair color and race that people have. One being that people of certain ethnicities and races cannot have naturally blonde hair. This new study proves that idea wrong.

Photo Cred: Aust Defence Force

An article in the New York Times describes the experiments done on a group of people from the Solomon Islands. For some inexplicable (but not any more!) reason, many of the dark- skinned inhabitants have naturally blonde hair. But why?

Scientists did experiments on a giant chunk of the islanders, taking saliva samples from over a thousand people. Then they looked specifically at 43 blonde, and 42 dark haired islanders. What the discovered was that the blonde haired islanders had a specific gene, now called TYRP1, that changes the pigmentation of their hair.

What is perhaps most surprising is that Europeans have no trace of the gene in their genome. This, as Carlos Bustamante says: “For me it breaks down any kind of simple notions you might have about race,”

Hopefully these scientists will continue to learn more about hair and skin pigments and the genes that cause them. Do you like your hair color? Ever wonder why certain people seem to have one type of hair color instead of another? Just remember, it can all be explained by the genes.

Don’t Wish for your Baby to Come too Soon!

Premature birth is simply now known as the second leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Premature birth, according to biologynews.net, is when a child is born prior to 37 weeks.India has a record 3,519,100 premature births, and the United States has 517,400 record births. That is a very scary thought, and it is even scarier that it is our reality. That is even the current storyline on Grey’s Anatomy!

Factually speaking, 15 million babies are born too soon, and 1.1 million of those die very quickly afterward. Those that live, can seriously suffer from “serious infections, cerebral palsy, brain injury, and respiratory, vision, hearing, learning, and developmental problems.”

The Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS) has partnered with Born Too Soon to try to stop premature births. Unfortunately, it is harder than it seems. Craig Rubes, MD, PhD and executive director of GAPPS even said,

“Even if every known intervention was implemented around the world, we would still see 13.8 million preterm births each year; we could only prevent 8 percent.

As a society, we cannot just stop premature births, so global research is being performed daily by NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

 

This is a picture of a premature baby. As you can see, the baby is hooked up to a ventilator to help with breathing.

Mothers: Avoid Drugs for Pain so Your Baby is Sane

photo cred: localtvkstu.files.wordpress.com

While pregnant or in labor, women experience amounts of pain that most men couldn’t dream of. They have to put up with this pain somehow…so according to a recent article, over the last decade, there has been a rise in use of prescription pain killers that has spread to maternity wards in the US. Unfortunately, because these painkillers are opiate-based, there has also been a rapid increase in the number of pregnant women addicted to opiates and also the number of babies born with withdrawal symptoms.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association has estimated that about one baby every hour is born with opiate withdrawal symptoms, and about 13,500 per year. According to the study, this condition, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, results in seizures, breathing problems, dehydration, difficulty feeding, tremors and irritability in infants at birth. These infants must be hospitalized for up to many weeks while doctors ween them of their opium dependence with smaller doses of morphine or methadone.

The study, after looking at two databases consisting of “representative samples” from patients across the country, made two shocking discoveries. Over the period from 2000-2009, the number of pregnant women using opiate pain killers increased to five times as much, while the number of babies diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome tripled at the same rate.

Not only is it an awful thing for these infants to be born addicted to opiates, but it also takes “a tremendous amount of nursing care” and time to cure these babies, according to Dr. Mark Hudak of the University of Florida College of Medicine. In the study, infants averaged about 16 days in the hospital. It takes them this long to be initially “cuddled,” placed in a dark room, then given tapered doses of methadone or morphine until the baby is weened. However, Hudak also states that “[morphine and methadone] are easy to overdose babies with” and that “there have been deaths” in this treatment.

According to the article, doctors agree that the best approach to deal with this problem is to cure women of their addictions before they are pregnant and prescribe them little or no opiate painkillers.

selective hearing

Two scientists at the University of California, San Francisco  figured out how selective hearing works. Known as the “cocktail party effect,” people are capable of focusing on just one person speaking within a room full of people speaking.

“To understand how selective hearing works in the brain, UCSF neurosurgeon Edward Chang, MD, a faculty member in the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery and the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience, and UCSF postdoctoral fellow Nima Mesgarani, PhD, worked with three patients who were undergoing brain surgery for severe epilepsy.”

They had to identify areas in the brain that disable seizures. These are found by looking at the brains activity within a couple of weeks  “with a thin sheet of up to 256 electrodes placed under the skull on the brain’s outer surface or cortex. These electrodes record activity in the temporal lobe — home to the auditory cortex.”

“The new findings show that the representation of speech in the cortex does not just reflect the entire external acoustic environment but instead just what we really want or need to hear.”

If you want to “experiment with the art of hearing,” go to   links.sfgate.com/ZLJH.

 

 

Sorry, What Did You Say?

Credit: Cyclone

Are you able to zone out in a noisy room and just focus on one thing? I know that I am able to do this when I am really into a book and I block every other sound out when I am reading. Are you able to focus on only one voice in a room of many?

A recent study has shown that the brain has the ability to focus so intensely that it can make a single voice seem like the only sound in a room full of other noises. Nima Mesgarani and Edward Chang of the University of California, San Francisco, studied what happens in the brains of people who are trying to follow one of two talkers. Scientists call this scenario “cocktail party problem.” In the study, electrodes were placed under the skulls of three people for an epilepsy treatment. The electrodes picked up high gamma waves from nerve cells. The pattern and strength of the high gamma waves reflect which sounds the people were paying attention to. The scientists gave the test subjects a signal word and told them to focus on that speaker once that word was spoken. Throughout this experiment, the researchers recorded brain activity and sorted that activity into patterns that reflect voices and words. They found that before the signal word was uttered, the patterns in the brain showed up as a mishmash, but once that word was heard, the subjects’ attention focused on that one voice and their brain activity shifted to a pattern similar to that seen when the listener heard only a solo speaker.

Micheyl said, “scientists already knew that attention influences perception, but the new results demonstrate that this is a literal, direct reflection of auditory attention at the neural level.” These results help explain how people are able to pick out a single speaker from a multitude of incoming sounds. Scientists hope that with these results and a deeper understanding of the brain’s power to focus, it will be possible to better treat people who can’t sort out sound signals effectively, something that can decline with age.

The next time you are in class and feel like you can’t listen to your teacher because the rest of the students in your class are making a lot of noise, try to focus on only your teacher’s voice. Your brain has the power to do this, so if you put your mind to it, you will be able to see that it isn’t so hard to listen to one person amidst a group of jumbled noises!