Transcript-TWIS.ORG June 23, 2009

Synopsis: Bacteria proves that the World Is Smarter Than You, Plant are aware of their environment, Competition increases Brain size, Bacterial Brilliance, Lazy Eye Games , Supercomputing Sunspots, Brain Tools, Toxic Birds, Where is My Schizophrenia?

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

What we know of the world is limited like a cavefish evolved without the need of sight. Eyelessly bumping against the rocky sides of our enclosure, we have evolved only a primitive ability to sense our surroundings.

The full spectrum of our environment would continue to remain as hidden from us as the sun lit world above the cavern pool to the blind fish if not for our unique ability to conduct the revolutionary act of science.

With science, we can see far beyond the boundary of our evolutionary bubble from the electron spin to galaxy clusters of the early universe. Science gives us a method to touch, taste, hear, smell and see in ways that nature alone could not.

And while it is debatable whether or not our uniqueness of scientific mind is separate from nature or simply an extension of how nature makes modifications of genetic tools with which to observe things, thereby bringing up the potential argument of whether life itself is natural when it’s compared to the deadness with the rest of the known universe, thereby making anything that life indulges in a wholly unnatural happening in the first place.

Still it is sufficient in the context to the following hour of our programming to say that the views and opinions expressed here naturally do not represent those of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

Get ready to leave the protective bubble of your evolutionary upbringing. And like a blind but curious cavefish, go out of water, boldly, where no cave fishes dare to go to before as we do each week here on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin!

Justin: How are you doing?

Kirsten: I’m all right. It seems to me that the two of us are the epitome of allergy season this week.

Justin: Yeah. I thought I had allergies. It turns out that I have a raging contagious cold.

Kirsten: Oh, thanks.

Justin: You’re welcome.

Kirsten: Thanks for warning me.

Justin: But there are no sick days down here at This Week in Science.

Kirsten: No, there’s not. Just don’t touch anything. This week we have all sorts of science news. I brought stories about plants, rats, bacteria and the cyborg within. What do you have?

Justin: I have schizophrenia but I seemed to have lost it. It didn’t make it through me.

Kirsten: I don’t know where the schizophrenia. Has anyone seen the schizophrenia?

Justin: My schizophrenia has apparently cured by a printer that refused to print out that story.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Let’s see if they can pull off the computer. I’ve also got a way to get a bigger brain, very important.

Kirsten: Oh, great.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Good.

Justin: Everyone should listen up to that one. And sexy side what’s considered an ailment. Yeah, I have a little debate there about whether or not the lazy eye is. Why are you laughing? I happen to…

Kirsten: I wasn’t ready for sexy and lazy eye and these things that…

Justin: It’s a – it may – I don’t know. There’s a percentage of the population. Maybe we can get callers call in and weigh in on this. I’ve always found the lazy eye to be dead sexy.

Kirsten: All right then.

Justin: So, but there’s like somebody trying to cure that. And I think that’s just foolishness. And I think we both brought the bird’s eye news of some bird’s eye views.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: It’s in there somewhere.

Kirsten: I think we did. The toxic bird eye story.

Justin: And I’ve got a couple stories that got smudged out of the end of last week’s show that we’re bringing back.

Kirsten: They didn’t quite make it in.

Justin: Right. They got blurb out of the end but…

Kirsten: The time just smudged them out last week and here they are.

Justin: They’re pretty good so they came back.

Kirsten: All right big stories at the beginning of the top of the hour this week. The plants are aware.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: They know.

Justin: Uh-oh.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: They’re angry.

Kirsten: A study out of UC Davis — I love UC Davis — this was actually sent to me by Ed Dyer. UC Davis researchers have published in the journal Ecology Letters a study about plants and how they communicate to try and keep from getting eaten.

It seems that sagebrush – what are you laughing about?

Justin: To keep from being eaten?

Kirsten: Yeah. Don’t eat me! Hey, act this way fellow sagebrush plant. You look like a nice sagebrush plant. Act this way and you won’t get eaten.

Justin: Try to look…

Kirsten: Try to look cool. Be cool little bunny.

Justin: How does the sagebrush camouflage itself? That’s what – this is what I want to know. Try to look like a person, an animal or rock, a mineral. Like try not to look like a plant.

Kirsten: Don’t look like a plant.

Justin: Move around a lot.

Kirsten: Oh, dear. So, Richard Karban from the Department of Entomology, along with Kaori Shiojiri from the Center for Ecological Research at Kyoto University in Japan, they found that sagebrush responds to cues from itself. So from branches on its own plant self and from queues from other sagebrush.

So, there seems to be some kind of a volatile or an airborne signal that is emitted when danger abounds, when bugs come around and go chump, chump, chump, give a little bit of danger to the pant.

The plant goes, “Ah!” It’s like an odoriferous – plant oderiferous chemical scream that goes out into the air.

Justin: The smell of that sagebrush fills the air.

Kirsten: That’s right. So Karban says, “Plants are capable of responding to complex cues that involve multiple stimuli. Plants not only respond to reliable cues in their environments but also produce cues that communicate with other plants and with other organisms, such as pollinators, seed dispersers, herbivores and enemies of those herbivores.”

They looked at the relationships between the volatile profiles of clipped plants — those that went around and they sniffed branches off of plants — and also from herbivore damage.

And what they found is that plants within a particular range of around 60 centimeters of an experimentally damaged plant in the field– they experienced less leaf damage over the course of the season, compared with other plants that were nearby an unclipped or undamaged neighbor.

So– and root contact doesn’t have anything to do with it. So they isolated…

Justin: There’s nothing being communicated underground.

Kirsten: Right. So they had some plants that were close together that were touching roots underground and then they isolated them from air contact. So they basically were like, “Okay, while you’re touching underground we’re going to separate you above ground and see if anything is communicated through the roots below ground.”

And they found that there was no effect. So, those neighbors that had damage still saw a lot of damage over the course of the season regardless of their below ground contact.

So, it’s something that’s being given off these chemical cues that get released into the air so that the plant can communicate with itself and with pollinators and with the other herbivores, insects that come and want to kill them and other neighboring plants.

So, in the paper they say that “naturally occurring herbivores caused similar responses as experimental clippings with scissors and active cues were released for up to three days following clipping.

Choice and no-choice experiments indicated that herbivores responded to changes in plant characteristics and were not being repelled directly by airborne cues released by clipped individuals.”

So, there’s some kind of – it’s not an airborne cue but some kind of change in the plant itself. So the plants communicate through these volatile signals. And then maybe cause changes in the plants like something happens to the coloration of the leaves or something like that. And then the herbivores go, “I don’t want to eat it.”

And this goes right along with another study that – this was sent – this came out of the BBC News – Earth News website. And this is published in Evolutionary Ecology. A team of researchers looking at plant down in Ecuador. This plant is known as “Caladium steudnerii folium”. And this plant pretends to be sick.

So there’s like a modeled – the leaves actually have a modeled coloration where there’s – instead of being green and having the ability green means lots of chlorophyll, chlorophyll – ability to photosynthesize. So, it’s usually thought of as really good for plants to have lots of chlorophyll for photosynthesis and energy.

They found that these plants actually – they’re preyed upon by mining moths who lay larva into the leaves. And then the moth larval caterpillars eat the leaves through – leaving a trail of white through the surface. It looks like damaged.

And so these plants actually have a mottled white coloration that makes it look like they’ve been eaten…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: …by the caterpillars.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: And that keeps them from being preyed on by more mining moths.

Justin: Somebody is already been there, it looks like.

Kirsten: It looks like someone has already been there.

Justin: That’s cool.

Kirsten: Yeah. So we’ve got this faker, this plant faker down in Ecuador. And this is some kind – so they’re some kind of cost-benefit that’s going on in terms of amount of chlorophyll in the leaves and ability to photosynthesize versus predation by these mining moths.

And these plants have found that it’s much better for them to have this variegated or mottled leaves to keep from being eaten.

Justin: All right. And then my skeptic’s eye view then though is like, well, maybe it’s something that somehow the plant has noticed that it’s getting – that something keeps happening to the leaves and yet it gets to reproduce still. So, let’s try to reproduce that for the next generation, something similar to what’s been taking place.

Kirsten: Yeah. And does the plant go about doing that?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Deciding?

Justin: Not deciding.

Kirsten: I don’t think that’s – there’s not that kind of attitude (unintelligible).

Justin: I haven’t say – yeah you’re right, not deciding but activating, something in the plant that tells us to try to repeat the performance of the past because we seen in seedlings before how they will sprout in terms of the previous generation’s water.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So, it could be that the moths from having eaten the previous generations have triggered something the plant that says, “Let’s try to repeat what happened before. If something weird happened to our leaf, let’s see if we can mottle it the same way.”

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I don’t know but that’s pretty strange.

Kirsten: It’s pretty interesting, I mean these two stories, they go very closely like hand-in – tie in and hand-and-hand, the plant communication, the plant this coloration tricking the predator-prey relationship that is somehow gone and it’s like creating this characteristic.

Justin: And then the first one, I wonder if the predators are like something in them has triggered them not to eat those plants because, well we’ve already eaten a lot around here and we’ve conserving resources.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Like that’s – yeah. Who knows which one is being triggered? Which one is being – is it conservation or is it deception?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s a very, very interesting question and all of these. And there are plenty more stories today that I think all fit into a general show theme of “The World is Smarter Than You”.

Justin: However, in the interest of outdoing the world, I have introduced a new show segment for This Week in Science.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: How do you this? You just introduce show segments. Don’t tell me beforehand.

Justin: No, they could get approved or denied that way. So, better just to launch them live on air. So this new segment is going to be basically a poll that we’re going to conduct after each show. And it’s going to be called, “Who’s Your Favorite Host?”

And basically what it is, is you’re going to be rating the performance, how well did the host perform versus the other host during that show segment.

Kirsten: Great.

Justin: So…

Kirsten: I hate this kind – I hate this.

Justin: It’s going to be “Justin versus Kirsten” because there are no other hosts on the show. And you’re going to have to each week on the scale of…

Kirsten: Unless I get another one.

Justin: It could be on a scale of 1 or 2. I guess 1 and 0 because it’s only two of us but we’re going to make it a scale out of 10.

Kirsten: This is it, a Go/No go choice test. Yeah.

Justin: Pretty much it is, yeah. So each week we’re going to conduct this poll. And the following week, we’ll announce who the better host of the previous week was.

Kirsten: Why do we have to do this, Justin?

Justin: Because according to the study, new research finds that the…

Kirsten: You gain.

Justin: …the way that human beings evolve bigger brains was through competition.

Kirsten: I see. So, this is all a plot. And you think you will get a bigger a head.

Justin: I will get a bigger brain by competing.

Kirsten: No. No, I think that just if people vote for you, it’s just going to increase the size of your huge cranium.

Justin: My ego float over. Yeah, I guess I’ve already spoken about the vice of humility enough time. And I don’t know, maybe Narcissism.

Okay. Over the last 2 million years — according to the science-y story — over the last 2 million years, the size of the human brain has tripled. Wow. Right? We’re doing pretty good.

Kirsten: That’s a lot in a very, very short time.

Justin: Yeah. And it makes us the fastest growing species of brain on the planet. Examining the reasons for human brainy expansion, University of Missouri researchers…

Kirsten: Missouri?

Justin: …studied three common hypotheses for evolutionary brain growth in humans. There was climate change challenges — so as the climate changed, we had to adjust to new conditions, and therefore, we had to think on our feet — ecological demands and social competition.

Ecological demands are – I don’t know exactly what that right off the bat would entail. But social competition, we can understand competing with other humans. The results, social competition wins in a landslide. It is the major cause considered, the correlative cause of increased cranial capacity.

Researchers collected data from hominid skulls, hominids are like humanish – humans or humanish skulls of the past 2 million years, examined the locations, global climate changes and the times when the fossils were dated. And the assumed number of parasites that must be ecological…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …where we came up as — oh wow — these parasites influenced us.

Kirsten: You like that idea too, don’t you?

Justin: Yeah. I like that actually. So the estimated population density in the areas where the skulls were found, were thrown in, the researchers discovered that all the relevant factors they plugged into this thing population density had the biggest effect on skull size and cranial branial capacity.

Our findings — this is when I’m quoting somebody. I talk like this — “Our finding suggests brain size increases the most in areas with larger populations. And this almost certainly increased the intensity of social competition,” says David Geary, Curator’s Professor and Thomas Jefferson Professor of Psychosocial Sciences at MU College of Arts and Science.

“When — I have no idea if he actually sounds like this — when humans had to compete for necessities and social status which allowed better access to those necessities, bigger brains provided an advantage.”

So, it is through our competition – our social competition then that the brain grew.

Kirsten: But he doesn’t have – there’s – I mean I guess there’s no real control. I mean, they say social competition just be as a result of increased population density. Is this between different tribal groups competing for resources or is this individuals competing for resources and why not social cooperation?

Justin: Right. And these may all be part of that social competition. But it’s also – I think this is also – it’s interesting and it doesn’t go into enough detail (clearer).

Kirsten: It’s all correlation.

Justin: Yeah. But – and there is some correlation, like the climate change was the second runner up because they did find there was some correlations between increasing climate change and importance of coping with the new environments.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But I think when you look back the vast swath of time backwards large populations at one point of human beings would consist of groups like 100 or 150. One hundred and fifty was about our full tribal make-up. That was like a good size grouping of humans.

And then as we progress and started working together and it turned into thousands and then tens of that. I mean, at some point we really were interacting with each other, much, much, much more than we were before.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And if we’re the smartest thing after we’re interacting with other smart people, this is what it’s all about people. This is actually how you get smarter. Interact with other smart people.

I mean if you interact with people who aren’t smarter than you – I’m sorry Kirsten. If you interact with people who aren’t smarter than you, you’re not likely to be learning new things. That’s just…

Kirsten: It’s just (unintelligible).

Justin: I don’t know how you do it, really?

Kirsten: Yeah, yeah, whatever. Yeah, I think this is, – I mean this is an interesting – it’s an interesting question where do the brain expansion come from? How did our brains grow?

It’s very interesting. I mean social interaction on an individual scale. It’s the individual scale leading to population level changes leading to the change in certain genetic characteristics over time that eventually the frequency of those in the population that leads to big brains evolving quickly.

Justin: And the thing that I think is an unknown data point of our history is when language, when spoken word communication really came in to being.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Because I think that may have made population densities easier. We could probably exist in larger groups once we keep all communicate and say what our different task for what we were doing and understand that they knew what we were saying and that they had things that they wanted the whole theory of mind.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: When we sort of got that. I don’t know that there is a data point out there that illustrates when that happened. But I get to see the acceleration from that point, from spoken language being able to communicate sort of abstract ideas or even just physical landmarks and be able to talk.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: I could see a really rapid acceleration happening due to that because now we’re using our brain resources and energy to – for thinking stuff much more than we were previously.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I don’t know. Or maybe the acceleration happened to the point that we got big brains and we’re able to use our minds for language and maybe (unintelligible).

Justin: That maybe the brain just got so big that we’re like, “Hey. Oh, I just discovered language!”

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: What is it? What am I doing? Oh, I paint. I just made art. Wow! This is really cool.

Kirsten: Bacteria are doing a thing or two. I mean we think we’re pretty much big shots on the planet.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: But when it comes to survival, bacteria have it down. They got it nailed.

Justin: Dominant life form on planet Earth.

Kirsten: That turns out they anticipate things. They plan. They anticipate. They prepare for future events. I mean that sounds kind of smart, right, like thinking almost?

Justin: Of bacteria, yeah.

Kirsten: Bacteria, yeah. It’s interesting. Last year, just about the same time last year, I reported on a very similar study where researchers exposed bacteria to limited oxygen conditions over a period of time, several generations.

And then tested later generations of bacteria as they added oxygen back in to the environment and then took it away. And the bacteria, basically, they had some new genetic program that allowed them to anticipate the low oxygen condition or something like that. There was something that it suggests this.

Now there’s a new study out of the Weizmann Institute of Science. They have published a paper in Nature, very fancy journal out of the UK.

Justin: Glossy cover.

Kirsten: Yeah. They took E. coli bacteria and used their ecological history to test them. So basically, E. coli travel down the digestive tract. And normally, what happens is that they initially find lactose.

It’s a first kind of sugar. And as they travel further down the digestive tract, that sugar has been broken down a little bit, change a little bit by digestive processes and they get second sugar that’s maltose kind of (unintelligible). So it’s normally lactose first, maltose second.

And so, they checked out this, the bacteria and how they responded to lactose. And what they found is that when they were exposed to lactose, there was an up regulation of genes that deal with maltose.

So, even as the bacteria are dealing with the digestion, the fermentation processes that metabolic processes that they use to break down lactose.

Justin: They’re already gearing up ahead of time.

Kirsten: They’re already getting ready.

Justin: They’re not running into the maltose and then like, “We got to change.”

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: They’ve already prepared to change. Wow. That’s cool.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so then what they did is they switch the order of the sugars. And they give to check and see if it was just one or the other, the bacteria just – this is the way it works. And they found that if they give them maltose first, there is no change in the regulation of the lactose genes. So this is maltose specific.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And it’s very specific to the digestive tract environment and the fact that they normally encounter lactose first and maltose second. And so, this – they’re comparing this to Pavlov’s Dogs responding to the sound of a bell by salivating because they are anticipating dinner.

Justin: Yeah, drooling.

Kirsten: And so, this is like a Pavlovian bacterial response. It’s a really interesting idea. So, what they did then is they took the bacteria and then started giving them a lot of maltose followed by lactose to see if over generations they could switch the genes. And that’s what happened.

So, over several generations, the bacteria in effect learned they had some kind of a population level like genetic memory that maltose would come first and then lactose would come second. And the order of the gene activation or regulation was switched.

Justin: Gene memory.

Kirsten: Gene memory.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so the question now, the big question is this is happening in bacteria, could this also be happening in human cells? Is this something that’s very widespread that genes act in response to the environment in a very specific way and that over generations over time that that kind of a genetic memory can be imprinted.

Justin: Right. And I think I’ve posed this idea like many moons ago we’re talking about this that if for instance I was running track. None of – my parents had never run very much in their lives and we’re very sedentary. But I, for whatever reason, decide I was going to be a track star.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: I went out and run 20 miles everyday. I would assume that my children would have a proponent for running, would have made some sort of adjustment for – and this is I think there’s a couple of different evolutionary theories.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But that’s the one I subscribe to. It’s that the Lamarckian Evolution, yeah.

Kirsten: Lamarckian Evolution, which is kind of related to – they’re finding more and more that at the genetics and the side — there are some things that could potentially affect change while you are alive to cells.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: But it’s very hard to say what those things are going to be.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: Because you have to actually change your germ cells. You have to change the cells in – like you have your body cells and you have your reproductive cells, the germline.

And your body cells, they’re dividing all the time and they’re going to —you’re doing stuff and it could be changing instructions that occur on those cells. But we don’t know how often what you do in life actually affects your reproductive cells.

Justin: Right. And the way I think would half their work is it would have to be genes that you already have in you.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: But there is some sort of – what I would assume is that there would be hierarchy like some sort of encoding. So I think we’ll – this is okay. Future prediction, at some point we’re going to find a hierarchy within the genetic code that will favor one gene over another for a future generation that says, “Okay, we’ve been using this one but it looks like this one will be more important.”

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Like it would be asked for almost.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: I don’t – they’re kind of just very vague and un-science in a way, but I think…

Kirsten: But we’re seeing stuff like that in plants.

Justin: Yeah, we’re seeing…

Kirsten: We’re seeing it in bacteria. I mean, the question is whether or not it extends to the way that mammals reproduce somehow, .

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: It’s really…

Justin: We’re ways off – we have a whole bunch of other stuff going on all at the same time.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, there’s a kind of thing if you’re a giraffe and you’re stretching for a tree and you stretch your neck.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: You’re not going like to – you’re not going to pass that on to the next generation. There are certain things that are just that, the physical characteristics, that’s the way it is. And how many characteristics are just physical characteristics and how many of them can actually change during your lifetime if those changes can be passed on?

Justin: Yeah. I don’t know.

Kirsten: It’s very interesting.

Justin: I think perhaps that giraffes’ long necks…

Kirsten: Lamarck was discredited a long time ago. Let me just say.

Justin: But he’s getting more – well, not Lamarckian per se but there is perhaps an explanation for what set Lamarcky down his path. That’s showing up now.

Kirsten: Yeah, yeah.

Justin: All right?

Kirsten: All right.

Justin: No, on the bacteria…

Kirsten: I don’t think he was there.

Justin: …the memory thing, the premeditated thing on the – there was a one story we did awhile back about E. coli being able to produce a toxin.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And then, when they’re in competition with another group of E. coli, they can go out to that. They can pass on these toxins to each other and all get immunity to it within their tribe of E. coli.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And then they will leave their tribe going to the other grouping of E. coli and explode themselves. And because that group hasn’t seen this toxin that they’ve created and that they’ve shared, those E. coli die, the opposing E. coli die. So they have this strange – I mean, that’s a very premeditated like – it’s like a strategic…

Kirsten: Almost, it is like a strategic warfare kind of.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s a battle.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Bacterial battle.

Justin: And so really, again, we haven’t really evolved much beyond E. coli because we do some of the same stuff that they do. We can plan things. We have social organizations. They have altruism. They have war. They have colonies that create larger organizations (boundaries).

Kirsten: Yet again…

Justin: Really, that’s kind of – we’re just playing out nature on a bigger scale.

Kirsten: The world is smarter than you.

Justin: Yeah, I guess. I always challenge it and I always lose.

Kirsten: I lose again. All right, it’s 9:00. We are going to take a break and we will be back in just a few short, short minutes with more This Week in Science. Stay tuned.

Justin: And we’re back with more This Week in Science.

Kirsten: We are. We’re going roundy round roundy round roundy.

Justin: I’m going dizzy.

Kirsten: That’s Monty Harper off of the 2009 This Week in Science Music Compilation. And before the break we had Warp 11 with “My Electric Man”. They’re a band out of the Sacramento area, a Trek band.

Justin: A Trek-themed band.

Kirsten: Trek-themed, yeah. That song is I think a little bit different than a lot of the songs we’ve got right now that they’ve recently put out.

Justin: What’s the new Star Trek movie came up so they’ve updated everything?

Kirsten: Yeah. So, they’re a fun band. And I just posted a little “hi” on Twitter. I’m @drkiki on Twitter.

Justin: Oh, and I’m @jacksonfly.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So somebody – because Kirsten’s got like 10 million people following her.

Kirsten: Not yet. Not yet. I’ve got 9,732 according to my Profile right now.

Justin: And I’ve only got…

Kirsten: I’d love – I would love 10,000. That would be great.

Justin: I’ve only got like 300. So, so far Kirsten is winning the Big Brain competition.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’ve also been doing Twitter a little longer than you have.

Justin: Oh yeah, she’s old school.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’m old school.

Justin: I was just Twittering on rotary phone.

Kirsten: I remember when.

Justin: Okay. Okay, on to the science-y news.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: When is a problem not a problem? When that problem is just dead sexy.

Kirsten: Oh dear.

Justin: Four percent of people suffer from Amblyopia — what I like to call the come hither lick — which is better known as “lazy eye syndrome”. Traditional treatment for the condition requires the use of a pirate patch often for months at a time. This can lead to unwanted social stigma during the formative part of childhood, which is often use…

Kirsten: Or pretending – or thinking that you’re a pirate for a large portion of your life.

Justin: Yeah. Yeah or worse makes you think that you’re actually a pirate. So, in response to this, Tel Aviv University’s eye and brain specialist Dr. Uri Polat of Goldschleger Eye Research Institute has developed a video game therapy that could spare kids from the endless pirate jokes by correcting the activity of the neurons in the brain, which is actually the main operator in the eye function.

Twenty hours in front of Dr. Polat’s computer treatment had the same effect as about 500 hours of wearing an eye patch. That’s pretty cool. A review published recently in Vision Research – according to a recently published review of it. Dr. Polat’s research group has also reported that the new treatment’s efficacy in a number of scientific publications, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

In this game, random objects appear as if out of nowhere, keeping the patient constantly alert and expecting the unexpected. And in quoting Dr. Polat, “As far as I know this is really a one-of-a-kind, non-invasive and effective way to treat lazy eye, without the use of an embarrassing eye patch.This is probably the first treatment that attempts to correct lazy eyes in adults, and something that doctors had previously given up on. Doctors don’t suggest intervention after the age of nine, because it usually doesn’t work.”

So this is something they’re gearing up to use with children but has shown some effectiveness in adults. That’s interesting. Taking if from the lab bench to a commercial product, Dr. Polat who undoubtedly does not own a video game consul of any maker model says he wants to make sure that the treatment will be as stimulating as a regular video game.

I think that’s maybe – I think that might be reaching. I think it might be enough to sit down and say, “Here, this is eye exercise in a video game form and people will get. I don’t think you have to try to use that too much.”

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Anyway, the existing game like therapy he developed for the computer was in his words “a bit boring,” making it hard for some of the kids to sit through an entire session.

Kirsten: That’s I mean – that’s a big thing. There are a lot of kids. I mean, kids have energy.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: And the ability to sit and focus for on a video game if it’s not keeping your interest.

Justin: Yeah. That’s why he’s now collaborating with researchers at Rochester University in New York where gaming specialists plan to remove most of the images of furniture, vegetables and finely tailored vest and replace them with more entertaining images that kids will be able to relate to.

If the issue is corrected though, it will ruin what I’ve always personally found to be one of the dead sexiest looks possible.

Kirsten: The pirate look?

Justin: Not the pirate look. No. There’s something about the sort of the wall-eyed lazy eye thing where it’s like, “Is she looking at me? She’s checking me out. I can’t – I’m not 100% sure but I think she might be.” I think it’s a cute look as long as – I don’t know though how – I don’t know from that perspective though with this vision problem associated with it, like what the vision is like if there’s a depth perception issue or if there’s a distance- like I don’t know.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, I know from – not with the lazy eye and I’m sure that if you’re growing up with the lazy eye that your brain compensates for it. But if you have palsy – a Bell’s Palsy as a palsy that affects the nerve – the optic nerve so that the muscles in your eye don’t work and it just – and just randomly happens. They have all sorts of causes – possible causes for the palsy.

But what ends up happening is that you end up with an eye that you can’t control. So you have one eye that just kind of starts going off on its own. And you’ll have double vision.

So, within the last few months, my grandmother had – came down with Bell’s Palsy. All of a sudden she was couldn’t stand up. It was like her entire world became two, split into two because the eyes are looking in different directions and the brain doesn’t compensate it.

And so, she’s not able to walk in a straight line. She has a list to the side because she’s looking into different places and kind of trying to pick one for the path.

And so, that’s kind of if it’s an acute event for the lazy eye then yeah, it’s going to cause a lot of vision trouble. It’s going to make life difficult for a while. Possibly if you’re growing up with it, it might be something that your brain can deal with because it’s during a very plastic phase.

And even if it happens as an acute event, if it last for any number of weeks, your brain is going to adapt to it over time.

Justin: And I think my entire family is somewhat cross-eyed.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And I think it’s something that happens in time because if you look at the young pictures of people in the family and you don’t really see it. But as they aged, there’s like a cross-eyed thing that starts to come into. It is something – I don’t know what that is.

Kirsten: I don’t know. Maybe you all read books really close up. I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Another interesting manipulation of the brain, using stuff like a pen or a computer or a mouse. I’m using stuff right now if you can see me now. Your body is up in this idea for a while that tools that we use become incorporated into the body schema, the map of the body by the brain so that if you’re using a pen, it’s not…

Justin: The extension of your arm.

Kirsten: Exactly. It’s not just an implement in your hand that you’re grossly moving about. It’s actually a part – it’s like another finger, something it’s a very neat thing that you can play with. It’s pen. I can throw it all over the place.

Justin: So your body sort of extends out. Your mind extends out around the dimensions of the pen so that it’s not just your fingers manipulating this one object, but the entire pen becomes part of you.

Kirsten: Exactly. And there hasn’t really been a lot of evidence to support that. But it’s been something that people have just kind of gotten — this just seems like it’s the way it works but no evidence. However, in the June 23rd issue of the Current Biology. So I guess it’s out today. That is 23rd, right?

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. So I guess that’s out today. Researchers from INSERM and the Université Claude Bernard Lyon have done a series of experiments in which they had people use a grabber, a grabbing tool.

So it’s like a long pole with a little handle at one end that you grab and then you basically pull a trigger and that opens a little grabbing implement at the end of the pole.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: So, that extends people’s reach, in effect making arms longer. And so they looked at the movements that the people made while they were – before and during and after using the mechanical grabber. And they found that after using the grabber, people behaved for a period of time afterwards as if their arm were longer making – as if their arm were still longer.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So there was a period of time where they thought that when they were touched on the elbow and the middle of their fingertip of their arm, as if they were farther apart.

Justin: Oh, that’s really interesting.

Kirsten: So, as if their entire arm were still incorporating that grabbing tool, as if – because your arm has a certain length and then you add length to it with the grabber, and so then if your mind really is extending out to that, you’re going to have this perception of distance is going to be different.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And that’s exactly what they found. They behave their arms. They grasp things a little differently. They move their arms slightly differently as if everything were longer.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so they did a number – their hands move more slowly. They checked the time it took longer for them to complete tasks. So, they think that this is evidence of the actual incorporation into the brain map.

Justin: I don’t know if this is completely unfitting, but I went from a 66 Thunderbird which is a ginormous beast of a vehicle…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …to a Toyota Corolla like a little small commuter compact thing. And I would park. I would be like edging in and out of parking spots. And then get out and look around and I’d have like three feet in the front, three feet in the back and be two feet from the curve.

So – like my driving body – my image of my body of the car like surrounding of your car, would still that 66 Thunderbird and I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t know if I could fit into that spot.” And yeah, sure enough I have like two car lengths to get in there. It’s just ridiculous.

Kirsten: Yeah. I just think it’s really – I mean, there are people who are saying maybe this is an actual evidence. And this is – , this they didn’t do any brain mapping at all. All they did was outward measurements of the behaviors. So measuring time, distance, movements. They didn’t actually – there’s no actual look at the brain to see if there’s some change in the way that information is mapped.

And I think that to rally get at this, to really know whether or not this is what’s happening, there needs to be some kind of a future study that looks actually at what is happening in the brain in the map portion of the cortex.

Justin: I would suggest that they do that car expriment.

Kirsten: That would be interesting.

Justin: I think that one would work really well, actually.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Have people like parallel parking a really monster huge beast.

Kirsten: Big car to small car.

Justin: And then go to a small car and see how differently they park than folks that were just parking a small car right off the bat.

Kirsten: Yeah. All I have to say is if you drive a small car just be careful when you rent a big moving truck.

Justin: Uh-oh. What did you do?

Kirsten: Nothing.

Justin: What did you do?

Kirsten: Nothing.

Justin: What did you do?

Kirsten: I didn’t do anything.

Justin: Like the rental car companies even listening.

Kirsten: Yeah. There should be some kind of like, “Oh, what kind of a car do you have? No, we’re not going to let you drive this large behemoth. This is not a good idea.

Justin: Oh my goodness. I have the story here but I don’t know where it is.

Kirsten: What story?

Justin: Oh, this is the one that got bumped from last time.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Roughly 1 billion arbitrary and potentially meaningless years from now, increased radiation from our Sun will have heated the Earth into an uninhabitable hot dead rock orbiting a dying star in the cold of space, at least for the surface dwelling non-extremo file types. Maybe some like that exist deep down underneath. We don’t know.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the food for plant life will disappear completely. The oceans will evaporate and living things will soon be gone.

Kirsten: I don’t know if I like this story.

Justin: It’s in a billion or so years, like who cares.

Kirsten: All right.

Justin: Anyway – or maybe not. Yeah, say researchers down from California Institute of Technology who have come up with the mechanism that doubles the future lifespan of the biosphere.

Kirsten: Whoa!

Justin: When and in doing so, also doubling the chance that advance life can be found elsewhere in the universe based on Drake’s Equation.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Drake’s Equation had this thing like number of planets in the universe.

Kirsten: The probability of finding life on the other planet.

Justin: Probability of life finding – but part of that was the length of time that life could have to evolve on a planet.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And by adding a billion years, especially if you’re adding another billion years on top of our advanced technological capabilities now granted we survive the first billion.

But giving us an extra billion years if you do a lot to increase our ability to get out into the universe and therefore any other life forms out there. Although I have this all theory that they would completely avoid us.

As the Sun has matured over the last 4.5 billion years, they become both brighter and hotter — increasing the amounts of solar radiation received by the Earth along with surface temperature, the same time though the Earth has reduced the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thus reducing the warming effect of the increased sunlight.

Kirsten: Got it.

Justin: So, what this basically says is it does have to do with atmospheric pressure. This is kind of a long involved getting sort of – that’s got the worst analogy in the world (unintelligible) just like blanket theory.

But basically the ideas is the less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the lower the pressure, the more that nitrogen gets taken up and disappears, which has like its counter acting effect.

So basically, they’ve took into the effects looking backwards at how carbon dioxide and nitrogen interact…

Kirsten: Interact.

Justin: …with life forms on the planet and all that. And they’ve said that our atmosphere should last another billion years beyond the current projections and should keep us at nice and cool even when the Sun is increasing its radiation.

Kirsten: That’s interesting. Yeah. Fascinating! Well, in terms of Sun’s solar radiation, a lot of that radiation is affected by sunspot activity. So, when you have more sunspots, the solar activity is considered greater and we have the – there’s more electromagnetic interference that possibly can affect our (techmology).

Justin: “Techmology”.

Kirsten: Yeah, our techmology here – technology here on the planet messing all sorts of cell phone signals, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, that kind of fun stuff.

So researchers at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany has published a paper in Science Express talking about a model that they’ve created, a computer model of sunspots on the Sun.

So, they have created this model that deals with all sorts of – it’s a three dimensional virtual Sun simulating an area about 31,000 miles by 62,000 miles and about 3,700 miles in depth, which is eight times the Earth’s diameter and expands as long as eight times the Earth’s diameter and as deep as Earth’s radius.

And so, they’re looking at energy transfer, fluid dynamics, magnetic induction and feedback, and all sorts of other physical phenomenon to figure out sunspot dynamics because it’s really important to know how and why and where the sunspots are going to form, why do they go through the cyclic behavior that they do, what is it that actually brings sunspots to the surface and gets them firing off.

So they’re using a supercomputer. It’s NCAR’s new bluefire supercomputer. It’s an IBM machine performing 76 trillion calculations a second.

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: And they are – this model they’ve created, the size of the Sun – this virtual Sun and all of the parameters that they’ve plugged into it to model, they have – they are at the limits of the calculating ability of this supercomputer.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Seventy-six trillion calculations a second. They can’t make a bigger model because the computer is not big enough to do it.

Justin: Oh my goodness.

Kirsten: Which I think is just amazing. They had limited it by computing power more so than imagination on what they want to measure or how they want to measure it. I mean, this gets back to the idea that came – I don’t remember who wrote the book, but the idea of the computer to model something like the universe, you have to build the computer the size of the universe.

Justin: The size of the universe. There’s many database, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. But still, they say that advances in supercomputing power are enabling us to close in on some of the most fundamental processes of the Sun with this breakthrough simulation and overall comprehensive physical pictures emerging for everything that observers have associated with the appearance, formation, dynamics and the decay of sunspots on the Earth’s surface.

So, they’ve made – they’re creating all sorts of pretty pictures of sunspots – virtual sunspots. And yeah, they look just like regular sunspots. And it’s a first time that they ever had a model of a sunspot.

Justin: Very cool.

Kirsten: Yeah, very cool, very cool.

Justin: Until the sunspot has come to destroy our cell phones.

Kirsten: Whoa! Death by sunspots.

Justin: This is a story sent in, a sent in story from Minion Peacock of London, Ontario, Canada who says he’s been living feline free since 1983.

Kirsten: Yeah, that’s funny.

Justin: That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Just letting you know , Justin.

Justin: Yeah. So, it’s just – I’m going to blurb the story out here. A new technique developed has found – indicates that woolly mammoths lived in Britain as recently as 14,000 years ago, which is 7,000 years more recent than previously had been funk.

Kirsten: Yeah, which is very interesting when the question is raised you know– do we have, – how many things do we have to look back at again that we say, “Oh, it’s this date. It’s this date. Our carbon dating says this date.” How many other things are maybe a little different?

Justin: Yeah. And a lot of the carbon dating stuff too has got like such a margin of error where it’s like give or take 100,000 years or 10,000 years or like sometimes it can be very frustrating because, – and then you find out…

Kirsten: Yeah. Sure, it’s frustrating to researchers too not being able to pinpoint things more accurately in time.

Justin: Yeah. This is the Shropshire fossils are the last record of mammoths living in Northwest Europe. They suggest that climate change wiped out the woolly mammoth in Europe rather than human hunters. And the new dates of the mammoth’s last appearance correlate very closely in time to climate changes when the open grassy habitat of the ice age was taken over by advancing forests which provides a likely explanation for their disappearance.

There were humans around during the time of these mammoths but no evidence of significant mammoth hunting according to Professor Lister that is published recently in the Geological Journal of the interesting that were…

Kirsten: The Geological Journal, great. Let’s see. Moving on, we have a few minutes left so I want to throw out a couple more stories. There’s a toxic molecule in birds’ eyes that might help them see their migration path.

Justin: Wait, wait, wait, huh?

Kirsten: Yeah. Interesting, right? So researchers at the University of Illinois have been looking at bird’s eyes and their ability to migrate. There is a particular reaction that occurs in the eye of the birds that migrate that involves a protein called cryptochrome. Cryptochrome is a blue light photoreceptor. And it’s found in some plants. It’s found in some eyes, like in bird’s eyes.

And this researcher named Schulten has proposed previously that this cryptochrome protein is a crucial part of the way that birds sense the geo-magnetic field of the planet.

So he’s been taking a look at this. What happens is that they are able – it’s like as if they have another layer of vision on top of the vision that they see the world and where they actually – if you could imagine a highlighting of…

Justin: Right, sort of the hue.

Kirsten: …where a hue that comes up over your field of vision indicating dense or – not denser but stronger electro – stronger or weaker electromagnetic field.

Justin: Been looking at blue hue.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That’s cool.

Kirsten: Maybe a blue hue, yeah, with this blue-light photoreceptor. But the question is, “How is this happening?” So, this cryptochrome, it’s very similar to like photosynthesis and the lots of these light receptor molecules. They involve the movement, the flow of electrons, this passage – the exchange of electrons to allow them to work.

And they didn’t think that the magnetic field would really be like strong enough to interact with these little tiny molecules, these cryptochrome molecules and then also change electron transfer in any way. They’re like, “How on Earth could this possibly happens. It’s such a minor, minor interaction. How could this really be working?”

But what they have found is that there is a reactive molecular oxygen that might be taking place in the reaction. And so, it’s not oxygen that we breathe but a cousin to it called superoxide which a negatively charged oxygen molecule.

Toxicity – that superoxide is actually very toxic to cells. It’s not something that helps cells. It breaks things down. The body has mechanisms for reducing concentrations of superoxide to prevent it from damaging things.

And so, that’s probably why in our eyes, we have superoxide there. We have the cryptochrome molecule we could possibly see. So, maybe it’s because our body has these mechanisms to remove superoxide to get rid of it so it doesn’t damage the cells in the eye.

Whereas birds because we are long lived so our eyes have to last a long time. Maybe birds…

Justin: Oh, interesting.

Kirsten: …don’t have such a long lifespan. This is what his…

Justin: Interesting. That’s great. Right.

Kirsten: And they don’t have that same toxicity moderating effect in the body. Maybe they don’t have the same processes that take care of it. This is what he’s saying.

And so, anyway, since the molecule is present and it has this effect to allow electrons to transfer to get the reaction partners, to get it all moving and possibly allow this orientation ability in birds. It’s pretty fascinating.

Justin: Okay. The one thing that I would immediately want to have tested and checked and see if there is, is like turtles, like the sea turtles.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Because they do a lot of migrating. But I guess they might not…

Kirsten: I don’t know if they have.

Justin: …if they’re using vision.

Kirsten: They use scent a lot.

Justin: But if they’re using scent and currents in the ocean probably…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …not relying very much on vision. Okay.

Kirsten: We’ll see. There are all sorts of…

Justin: There will be an interesting thing to find out though if they have – is there a long? It would be interesting to find out if – yes a lot of these shorter lived species have these unique abilities that would be toxic if they stuck around too long. That’s kind of an amazing idea. I like that.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah, it’s cool.

Kirsten: It’s cool, yeah.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s kind of cool. And we’re at the end of the hour.

Justin: We’re done.

Kirsten: Gosh! Darn it! I didn’t get to talk about the amazing water snake.

Justin: Yeah, go ahead.

Kirsten: The tricky water snake.

Justin: Yeah, go ahead.

Kirsten: Tricky water snake moves a part of its body and startles a fish into swimming right into its mouth. Tricky.

Justin: That’s clever.

Kirsten: Tricky little snake. This is a cool snake. Anyway, it’s the end of the show. We’d like to thank everyone who wrote in during the past week: Ed Dyer for the stories, (Junk Hobe) for cartoons, (Yuan Cerneck), David Eckerd, (Artium), Ian, Jeff, Maya, Eric Weaver, Scott. Thanks so much for writing in. Thanks for listening. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show.

Justin: We’re also available via podcast. So, go to our website, Click on Subscribe to the TWIS Podcast for information on how to subscribe or just go to the iTunes directory and search for This Week in Science.

Kirsten: And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes will be available on our website, We want to hear from you, so email us at or

Justin: Or Twitter us at @drkiki or @jacksonfly. We love to hear from you, your feedback, your story, suggestions and ideas.

Kirsten: And we will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30am Pacific Time. We hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

Justin: And if you have learned anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: …it’s all in your head.

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