AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: sayrest4

Why We Love Music

We have all experienced it; hearing a new song that you really like, and rushing to your preferred digital music distributor to buy it. Researchers at Science Magazine have recently determined why we have this feeling. Hearing a new song activates a part of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens. This part of the brain is used to make predictions, which it tries to do with a new song as well. When it correctly predicts where the song will go, it stimulate the feeling of pleasure, given that it is located within the reward center of the brain. However, the nucleus accumbens doesn’t work alone. It has been found that it works in conjunction with three other parts of the brain: one looks for patterns, another compares the music to sounds previously heard and the last checks for emotional ties. According to Robert Zatorre of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, these four regions of the brain “work overtime” when listening to a new song. This development has been taken further, and now researchers believe that they can correctly predict what a person is willing to spend on a new song judging by the amount of activity that their nucleus accumbens displays. Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University commented that a music store such as Google Music and iTunes was “a very clever idea” that plays to “an old theory in music cognition”. Some researchers believe that these discoveries will lead to breakthroughs in speech and sound recognition in the future.

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The Elderly, Video Games, and Mental Health

In our culture video games generally get a bad rap. Many people associate them the younger generations, as well as violence and time wasting. However, all of this focus on the negative has kept many people from seeing their potential benefits. According to new research by North Carolina State University, video games can improve the mental well-being of the elderly. The study consisted of 140 adults with an average age of about 77.5 years old grouped into three categories, non-gamers, occasional gamers, and frequent gamers (played at least once per week). These adults were then tested across six categories of mental health: Well-Being, Positive Effect, Negative Effect, Depression, Social Functioning and Self-Reported Health. In every category except for Negative Effect and Depression, both occasional gamers and frequent gamers scored considerably higher. Both forms of gamers experienced less Depression and Negative Effects than did the non-gamers. According to Dr. Jason Allaire, one of the main researchers behind the study, these games can be things like Solitaire or Bejeweled, and not fully fledged Xbox, PS3 or Wii games. This means that a large number of people can have access to these benefits, at a relatively low cost. In addition, video games have been found to have other positive effects on people, such as speeding up decision making and increasing awareness of surroundings. These studies are only the beginning of larger effort to examine the potential benefits of video games on people. Maybe video games aren’t that bad after all?

Is it Time for a New Hot Chocolate Mug?

Hot Chocolate in front of a fireplace on a cold winter’s day is one of life’s finest delights. And, according to research done at the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the University of Oxford, the flavor of your mom’s famous hot cocoa can be enhanced by the color of the mug you drink it out of. It has been found that drinking hot chocolate out of a cream or orange colored cup can improve the flavor. Researchers had fifty-seven people drink the same hot chocolate (unbeknownst to them) out of four differently colored cups: white, cream, red and orange with white on the inside. Most participants found that the beverage tasted best when had out of the orange and cream colored cups. This shows that the brain also takes into account visual stimuli, on top of flavor and aroma, when processing taste. Similar effects have been seen with other beverages as well. For instance, a yellow color improves the lemon flavor in certain soft drinks, a pink cup makes some drinks taste more sugary, and brown cups seem to give coffee move flavor. So, the next time you go to drink hot chocolate, make sure that you pick the cream or orange colored cup!

The Difference Between Itching and Pain

A new scientific breakthrough has led researchers to conclude that the feelings of itching and pain are relayed to the brain by different nerve cells. It was previously thought sensory nerve cells on the skin perceived both itching and pain. However, recent debate over this subject prompted a group of scientists at Johns Hopkins University to get to the bottom of it. In their experiments the scientists observed the reactions of mice to certain stimuli under different conditions. In the first experiment, the scientists isolated a type of nerve cell called MrgA3 by coating it with a glowing protein. They then exposed the mice to both pain and itch inducing stimuli, and found that MrgA3 sent a signal for both conditions. In another experiment, the researchers purposefully killed the MrgA3 cells so that they could observe how the mice responded to the same stimuli without them. They found that the mice acted in a similar way, albeit a stronger itching sensation was required to garner reactions similar in magnitude. This proved that there are other types of sensory nerve cells that are able to sense and relay the feeling of itchiness. In a final experiment, the scientists made it so that the MrgA3 cells were the only ones able to respond to a specific type of painful stimuli. After exposing the mice to the specific type of pain and to an itchy sensation, they found that in both cases the mice itched in response. This proved that MrgA3 nerve cells interpret both itchiness and pain as itchiness. This could potentially be very important to people who develop a chronic itch due to certain medications, or people with a phantom itch. Now that scientists know that only certain sensory nerve cells send the signal of itchiness to the brain, they may be able to shut them down when a patient has developed a chronic or phantom itch. Perhaps they will even come up with a way to stop the itch caused by wool sweaters, so during the next holiday season you won’t constantly be scratching when your mom forces you to wear one.


New Deadly Virus Discoved in Africa

Recently an article was released summarizing the discovery of a new disease in Africa. In 2009 a fifteen year old boy in a small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo fell ill. The initial symptoms were malaise and a bloody nose, but quickly the boy developed an acute hemorrhagic fever. Within two days of the showing symptoms the boy died. Approximately eleven days later a thirteen year old girl who went to the same school as Patient One developed similar symptoms, and died three days later. At the local health center which both Patients One and Two visited, a thirty-two year old male nurse began to experience identical symptoms. He was moved to the hospital in Boma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the doctors drew blood and began to test for known viruses; they found nothing. However, very recently a research team used deep sequencing to determine the pathogen,which they dubbed “Bas-Congo Virus”, and posted their results in the Public Library of Science Journal. It was discovered that the virus belonged to the Rhabdoviridae family, best known for the Rabies virus. Interestingly enough, though, the Bas-Congo virus only shares 34% of the amino acids found in other Rhabdoviruses, meaning that it is very different. The discovery of this virus may end up being of great importance due to the possibility that the virus may return. In any case, we will have one less pathogen on this planet to identity lest there be another, more deadly, outbreak.

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