I'm smarter than you.
I've learned quite a bit from my pets. From my feline housemates, for example, I've gleaned a lesson from the 'fight-and-nap,' when a prolonged face-off between two cats turns into a doze by both parties. Which I take to mean that rather than letting trivial disagreements bother us, we humans should just let them go.
But it turns out that this lesson is the tip of the iceberg. My pets are, it seems, a collective of miniature physicists covered in fur, as evidenced by two recent experiments that use high-speed video footage.
The way a cat drinks, for instance, depends on its innate ability to balance the inertia of upward-moving water with the gravity pulling down on that liquid, according to a study done by a small team of engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The work is published in last Thursday's issue of Science.
Cats lightly touch the tips of their tongues to water to drink -- that much is obvious. What you don't see in real time is that the tongue tap draws a column of liquid upward. Just when the water column nears its highest point, the mouth of the cat quickly shuts around it, the researchers found. You can read more about it in the New York Times, R&D Magazine and Time (the latter includes a sweet slow-mo video). Ed Yong has a nice discussion of this going on his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science. I was surprised to learn that the scratchy hairs on a cat's tongue have nothing to do with the way it laps water.
In another new study, which will be presented at a fluid dynamics meeting next week, scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology worked out how quickly dogs and other furry animals have to shake to dry themselves.
The shake is an oscillation that begins at the head and moves throughout the body, and must be frequent enough to overcome the forces that hold water to the body. So, the smaller the animal, the faster it must shake, the group found.
Discovery News reports that companies such as Whirlpool are interested in incorporating these drying principles into washing machine designs.
Whether these new findings inspire any life lessons for me remains to be seen, but they do confirm my sneaking suspicion that cats and dogs are somewhat brilliant.
Check out this awesome video of various animals dry themselves (courtesy of David Hu's group):
Researchers have developed the first stem cell system that makes it possible to study the early development of neurons from people with Rett syndrome, a rare disorder on the autism spectrum.
With the approach, reported 12 November in Cell, the scientists show that stem cells derived from the skin of people with Rett syndrome generate fewer functional neurons than do those from healthy individuals.
Get the full story on SFARI.
Image courtesy of Carol Marchetto and Alysson Muotri.
About a year ago, scientists at the University of California, San Diego finished slicing the entire postmortem brain of one of the most famous neurological patients of all time: Henry Molaison or H.M.
The story of H.M. is probably familiar to anyone who has taken an intro neuroscience or psychology course. At 27 years of age, after suffering from increasingly severe and debilitating seizures, H.M. agreed to an experimental operation that involved the removal of large chunks of his brain's temporal lobes.
Although the surgery abated H.M.'s seizures, it left him unable to form new memories. Taking more than 50 years of behavioral and brain imaging data from H.M., scientists pieced together a basic understanding of human memory. Memory is regulated by discrete areas of the brain, rather than cells spread throughout, researchers learned. In addition, the hippocampus area, a region which was removed in H.M.'s surgery, is necessary for forming long-term memories.
In 2008, H.M. passed away, leaving his last gift to science -- his brain, which was sectioned, stained and digitized for any scientist to study. Check out video footage of the slicing and an interview with lead scientist Jacopo Annese, director of the UCSD Brain Observatory on the The San Diego Union-Tribune website.
I checked in periodically (okay, obsessively) on a live webcast of the sectioning, which has lasted more than 48 hours and included some sleep and breaks. Having cut my fair share of frozen rat and mouse brains, I can only imagine the technical challenge of cutting a human brain, and a famous one at that.
Of course, the researchers were extra careful with H.M.'s brain. They discussed whether to cut the whole brain, or to first divide it into smaller chunks that would be easier to cut. In the end, they decided to the brain whole, figuring that it would minimize tissue loss.
The scientists also expressed some concern, in an entry of the Project H.M. blog (which seems to have disappeared from the Observatory's site) that it would be challenging to slice tissue in the area of the lesion because of the extensive scarring in the temporal lobes.
Luckily, the scientists made it through the scarred area. The hardest part of sectioning is over, but the real challenges (and excitement) — of analyzing H.M.'s cells and making new conclusions about human memory — have just begun.
I spend entirely too much time on Twitter, especially on Fridays, when my attention span has waned to nearly nil. Here's some interesting stuff on my radar this week:
Via @brainpicker, building thick skin with Rejection Therapy.
Freelancers and rejection are fast friends. So naturally, I perked up when I heard about the challenge to get rejected for 30 days in a row. Like, legitimately rejected. It's all about thinking to ask for what you want.
Via @RebeccaSkloot and many others, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was named Amazon Best Book of the Year. Not only that, but it made @LibraryJournal's and @PublishersWeekly's top 10s as well.
Via @stevesilberman, @edyong209 and too many to name, the story of how an editor from Cook's Source took content from a writer, published it without her permission, and then wrote an unbelievably snarky and not-well-thought-out reply when the writer complained. Facebook users gathered other duplicate content published in the magazine, although it's unclear whether the editor had permissions for these articles. LA Times, Poynter Online covered this, and How Publishing Really Works gave an especially thorough account.
For SFARI.org, I recently reported on how scientists are testing iPad applications in kids with autism. There aren't any published studies on the iPad yet, but people with the disorder have already started using its apps to communicate more easily and to keep track of schedules. Read the full piece here.
The article focuses on the potential benefits for kids, but I couldn't help noticing that iPads and other touch-screen devices are also a boon for parents and teachers. For example, Leslie Phillips, an instructor at the Mariposa School for Children with Autism in Cary, N.C., says that using the iPod touch's Behavior Tracker Pro app to monitor behaviors helps teachers get more accurate measures of the types and duration of behaviors, compared to paper-based tools. And, of course, any time-saving tools are helpful because the teachers have to not only track the behavior, but respond to it.