The Science Behind an Airplane Meal’s Lackluster Flavor

airplane food

Don’t blame the airplane food — it’s your senses (or lack thereof) that make it taste so bland. (Photo credit: Alex Segre/Alamy)

Airline meals have long been maligned for their bland flavor and strange textures. It turns out that at least some of the blame lies in an airline passengers sense of taste. [Read more…]

Do You Smell a Rat … Or Should the Rat Smell You?

African giant pouched rat

Some animals, such as this African giant pouched rat, are being used to sniff out disease in humans. (Photo credit: Penny Boyd/Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1989, a paper appearing in the British medical journal The Lancet made an astounding claim. Two dermatologists reported how a patient decided to come in for an exam because her dog kept sniffing a mole on her leg. The dog even tried to bite it off at one point. Tests proved it was a malignant melanoma nearly two millimeters thick. When removed, the woman survived, and the study would eventually become known as the ‘First Lancet Letter’ or the first time in a peer-reviewed medical journal that an animal’s senses had been linked to the detection of disease. [Read more…]

Please Don’t Stop the Music

band students

Research shows that playing a musical instrument is great for your brain. (Photo credit: Radius Images/Alamy)

Do you listen to music or play an instrument? If so, research shows you’re giving your brain an excellent workout. [Read more…]

Ebola Vaccine Trials Prove Successful

ebola vaccine

A woman takes part in an Ebola virus vaccine trial in Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo credit: Abbas Dulleh/AP Images)

Last summer, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was all over the news. At the outbreak’s height, many health officials feared the disease would spread across the globe, and indeed individuals in the United States and Europe were diagnosed with the disease. However, cases outside of West Africa were kept isolated and a global outbreak of the disease was prevented.

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The Heart of the Matter

heart

A healthy heart is key to a healthy life. (Photo credit: Tlorna/Shutterstock)

February is the month of the heart. Not only home to Valentine’s Day–the day to celebrate the love long-considered to originate from the heart–in the United States, February is designated as National Heart Month. [Read more…]

The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Myth

human brain

New research indicates that left-brain and right-brain dominance is a myth. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

You have probably heard that if you are creative, imaginative, and artistic, you are right-brain dominant, and if you are analytical, logical, and well-organized, you are left-brain dominant. However, recent research by scientists at the University of Utah indicates that the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy is nothing more than a myth.

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How ‘Super’ Are Superfoods?

superfoods

Some foods, such as asparagus and blueberries, are called superfoods. But what — if anything — does it mean to be a superfood? (Photo credit: Marilyn Barbone/Shutterstock)

If you search the term superfoods, the results will include a seemingly endless list of articles expounding upon the health benefits of various fruits, vegetables, and other foods. Most likely, the articles also will have headlines such as “The 10 Best Superfoods for Weight Loss” or “8 Superfoods that Prevent Cancer.” But what exactly makes a certain food item super? And, will eating these superfoods really benefit your health? [Read more…]

Cool Your Brain with a Yawn

Research indicates that yawning helps to cool down your brain. (Photo credit: Will & Deni McIntyre/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

A yawn is the hallmark of boredom or sleepiness, right? According to recent research, that connection may not be correct. Instead, researchers contend that yawning has less to do with how much sleep you got last night or how bored you are in your third period math class. Instead, research results indicate that yawning is the body’s way of cooling down your brain.

These results support the thermoregulatory theory of yawning, which suggests that yawning is caused by brain temperature increases. The act of yawning is therefore used to cool the brain down. Scientists think that this cooling effect occurs due to an increase in blood flow to the brain caused by the stretching of the jaw as well as the countercurrent heat exchange that is associated with the deep inhalation of a yawn.

Andrew Gallup, a post-doctoral research associate at Princeton University, collaborated with Omar Eldakar, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, on this research study, which was published in the September 2011 issue of the online journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience. Their field-observational experiment involved measuring the incidence of yawning among a group of 160 randomly-chosen young adults in Arizona. Eighty of the participants were tested during the summer months and the remaining 80 participants were tested in the winter months. In their study, the scientists showed each participant an image of someone yawning (since yawning is contagious perhaps looking at the photo that accompanies this article made you yawn?) and measured the number of times each participant yawned.

Results from their research show that there is a higher incidence of yawning when ambient air temperatures were lower than human body temperature. They found that study participants yawned less frequently (around 25 percent of the time) during the summer months, when air temperatures often exceeded human body temperature and humidity was lower. During the winter months, when air temperature was mild (around 71 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity was slightly higher, participants yawned more frequently (nearly 50 percent of the time). Their results also indicate that yawning is related to the amount of time a person spends outside exposed to the elements. The scientists found that though nearly 40 percent of the participants yawned within the first five minutes of being outside, in the summer months, this number drastically reduced as time outside increased. During the winter months, yawning occurred at a slightly higher frequency after more than five minutes outdoors had passed.

The results of this research support previous non-human animal studies. For example, a study involving rats found that the rats’ brain temperatures decreased immediately after a yawn. A second study using rats found that the incidence of yawning increased as air temperature increased. However, when the air temperature became too warm, the frequency of yawning decreased. Similar results occurred in a study involving parakeets. In one such study, parakeets were exposed to three different conditions: moderate air temperature, high air temperature, and increasing air temperature. Though yawning did not increase in the first two situations, the birds yawned at a significantly greater frequency when the air temperature increased over time.

So why do you yawn you are tired? Research indicates that both exhaustion and sleep deprivation are both associated with higher brain temperatures. These increased brain temperatures in turn trigger yawning to help the brain to cool down. Additionally, brain research also shows that yawning helps with the transition from sleeping to waking states, and vice versa.

The results from these studies have many practical implications. For example, studying the mechanism behind yawning could help researchers improve their knowledge about neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, both of which are associated with frequent yawning. The occurrence of excessive yawning could also be used as a diagnostic tool for thermoregulatory impairments.

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Sea Squirt “Nanowhiskers” May Help Regrow Human Muscle Tissue

Tiny polysaccharide fibers in sea squirts are similar in composition to the cellulose found in plants. (Photo credit: Andrew J. Martinez/Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Researchers at the University of Manchester in northwestern England have found that cellulose taken from tunicates can be used to influence the growth of skeletal muscle cells in the laboratory. Tunicates, also called sea squirts, are simple marine mammals. Though they float freely in the water as larvae, once they mature into adults, most tunicates attach themselves to the ocean floor and live the reminder of their lifetime without moving.

Celllulose is a polysaccharide, or complex carbohydrate, that is most typically thought of as the substance that makes up the cell walls of plants. The cellulose that makes up a tunicate’s body structure is similar to that produced by plants. In their experiment, the scientists extracted the cellulose from the tunicates as cellulose nanowhiskers (CNWs). At just tens of nanometers wide–much thinner than a strand of human hair–these nanowhiskers are tiny in size.

When applied to a layer of precursor muscle cells, the nanowhiskers caused the muscle cells to quickly align and fuse together. Proper alignment is important to muscle tissue because similarly-aligned fibers help provide a muscles strength and stiffness. Both of these characteristics are important for movement.

Dr. Stephen Eichhorn, a scientist who contributed to the study, believes these results could have a profound effect on medical research.

Cellulose is being looked at very closely around the world because of its unique properties, and because it is a renewable resource, but this is the first time that it has been used for skeletal muscle tissue engineering applications, Dr. Eichhorn said in a press release about the research.There is potential for muscle precision engineering, but also for other architecturally aligned structures such as ligaments and nerves.

Other scientists who contributed to the research included lead author James Dugan, a Ph.D. student, and Dr. Julie Gough. The results of their research were published in the journal Biomacromolecules.

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Learning Through Dreams

Researchers at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment that indicates that dreaming during non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep after performing a difficult task helps participants complete the activity more successfully after waking. (Scientists have only observed learning during non-REM sleep and not during REM sleep.) The researchers’ results also indicate that just thinking about the activity after first performing it does not help in later attempts to complete the task. These findings support earlier research indicating that sleep improves memory and learning.

“Task-related dreams may get triggered by the sleeping brain’s attempt to consolidate challenging new information and to figure out how to use it,” Dr. Robert Stickgold, study co-author, told ScienceNews about their results.

Researchers recruited 99 college students between the ages of 18 and 30 to participate in the study. For the experiment, the volunteers spent 60 minutes working individually to solve a 3-D virtual maze on a computer. During the activity, the participants performed several trials, and started the maze at a different location each time. In addition, while solving the maze, the participants were told to memorize the location of a specific tree’s location in the puzzle.

After spending an hour working on the maze, the participants were given a five-hour break. Half of the participants were instructed to take a nap, and the other half of participants were told to take part in quiet activities, such as reading or watching a video. For the nap group, the researchers fitted each participant with scalp sensors to monitor their brain activity while asleep. In addition, members of the napping group were asked about the content of their dreams just before they fell asleep, one minute after non-REM sleep, and at the end of their nap. Of the 50 participants in the nap group, four recounted dreaming about the maze activity. For the participants in the quiet activity group, each members was asked what they were thinking about at the beginning, middle, and end of the activity period.

After a lunch break and another period of quiet activity in which both groups of participants took part, the volunteers were asked to repeat the virtual maze activity. Those participants in the nap group who recalled dreaming about the maze in their sleep performed better the second time around in the maze activity and also found the tree that they had been told to remember quicker than other participants. All of the members of the nap group had been relatively unsuccessful in their attempts to complete the maze in the earlier session. The study authors suggest that tasks that are difficult and/or important to complete provoke memory processes in the brain required for learning to activate during sleep.

The scientists plan to continue their research into the connection between dreaming and learning. Future research plans include having study participants navigate through a more “exciting” virtual maze. The researchers are also interested in determining whether participants that have REM dreams about the maze during a normal full night’s sleep are able to better navigate the maze the next day.

The results of the scientists’ research were published in the April 22, 2010 online edition of the journal Current Biology. Study authors included Erin J. Wamsley, Matthew Tucker, Jessica D. Payne, Joseph A. Benavides, and Robert Stickgold.

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