Transcript: Nov 17, 2009

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

There has been a movement under way in the world. It began long before the ancient civilizations and continues into our modern age.

It is a movement of the mind, a revolution in thought and technology and possibility. It is called reason. It is called enlightenment. It is called science. And it is good.

And while the revolution may occasionally be televised, it – much like the following hour of programming – does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

Your role in the revolution – should you choose to accept it – is to enjoy thinking, to seek out new knowledge and to share that knowledge with others. The revolution is now broadcasting, podcasting and tweeting. So do your scientific duty. Play your part in the history of thought. Live up to your mental potential and fulfill your intellectual destiny.

If you are at all uncertain about how to register for the revolution, instructions are going to be subliminally laced throughout each episode of This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin. You’ve got an energetic streak going today.

Justin: It’s the coffee.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That’s all it was.

Kirsten: Coffee. Yeah. Recent research suggests that coffee might have some estrogenic effects. But they don’t know what that means.

Justin: Estrogenic effects?

Kirsten: Estrogenic effects, yeah.

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: You mean, I’m going to get wider hips and man breasts from drinking coffee?

Kirsten: Probably if you drink too much, maybe. I don’t know. They really don’t know what the effects are. But they found a compound that they didn’t think was estrogenic. But in laboratory tests, it did turn out to be a bit like an estrogenic compound, meaning that it has effects on cells the same way that the compound estrogen does.

It does get taken out in roasting of the beans, so the more – the longer the beans are roasted, the less of this compound there is. But they did find that through the water process, so it does end up in your coffee.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. We don’t know what that means. You know, have a nice cup of…

Justin: I’m still enjoying my coffee.

Kirsten: Yes. Energetic.

Justin: And now I’m going to get man breasts, too. That’s awesome.

Kirsten: Awesome. Awesome. Welcome to This Week in Science everybody. I’m Kirsten.

Justin: Yes, you are. I’ll confirm that.

Kirsten: Thanks. And that’s Justin, as we always are every Tuesday morning on KDVS here.

We have a great show ahead full of science-y goodness and science news.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Yeah. Never minding the weekend of debauchery that Justin had, he’s full of energy, so I’m excited because he seems excited.

I brought stories about drugs, the battle against hackers and memories. What did you bring?

Justin: I’ve got brand new breasts. My rats – rats are a man’s best friend. A self-diagnosed disease application and – I don’t know what my other story is going to be. I think I’m going to do something about cars.

Kirsten: Cars?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. There are a lot of other stories out there, spacey stories and stuff, but I don’t know if we’re going to talk about that today. But in the big news of the week – does making memories involve erasing memories?

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Well it kind of must. Because here’s the thing, if you remembered everything – like absolute photographic, digital recording of your entire life where everything you’ve seen and heard, did throughout everything – it’d just be way too overwhelming to try to access a thought if it was all there.

You could be lost. You could spend the rest of your life just going backwards and rethinking through your earlier life.

Kirsten: Yeah. Oh, this is a memory that just popped up because I wasn’t thinking straight before I came up with this memory that I was going to come – yeah.

I just like to say hi to Ali who’s our new intern.

Justin: Hi, Ali.

Kirsten: She’s sitting in the corner taking copious notes, which is wonderful because that means I don’t have to. But we’re excited to have Ali as a part of this show. Now, she’s going to be sitting in the corner fairly regularly most likely.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. We like – that’s good. That’s good. So welcome.

Anyway, making memories does possibly involve erasing memories according to a study in the journal Cell. Some researchers from University of Toyama in Japan were – they’re trying to erase fear memories in rats and mice.

What they checked out, they destroyed neurogenesis or the birth of new cells by irradiating the heads of some little rodents. They found that the rats and mice that had been irradiated maintained memories within – of a fear experience – getting shocked on a little electric plate.

They maintained memories of this fearful experience within their hippocampus and that they kept relying on their hippocampus every time a situation where that memory would come up was involved.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Usually, what happens is you have – memories begin in your short-term memory. They start getting put into place in your hippocampus. That’s where they first kind of enter the system of the memories in your brain.

From there, they get moved out during a process called “consolidation” to other areas of the brain. We know this happens because you can follow the neural signals.

And after a period of time – usually a few days to a month depending on the type of memory – that signal, the neuronal signal does not – is not expressed within the hippocampus after a certain period of time. And then it gets moved out to other areas of the brain. You can kind of pick up on it elsewhere.

So what they found in the area – in the hippocampus of the brains of these rats that have been irradiated, they continued to signal the neurons, continue to fire as if there was no time limit on the information being in the brain. That’s – a month later, still firing the same way as if it had happened yesterday.

They also looked, they looked at – what did they look at – they looked at some other brain regions trying to figure out exactly what happened with neurogenesis. They found that as these new neurons come into the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is an area where neurons are born constantly. And it’s one of the few areas of the brain where we actually have proof of this neuronal birth.

As these neurons were coming in, memories, the neuronal signals, seem to disappear. And the research they did really seems to imply that the birth of the neurons stimulates some kind of erasure of memories within the hippocampus.

Now, it doesn’t mean that the memories are gone completely. It just means that within the area of the hippocampus, the neurons stopped firing in a particular way.

Justin: This has such huge awesome implications for the way that this could be used. The first, I mean, the first apparent one is my weekend. I could go on for a neural wipe and forget about all the bad bets I placed.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: So there’s that upside. But you can think about it from the point of view of an athlete who has like a really horrible game and be like, “You know what, I don’t want this to haunt me during my next couple of games, so I’m going to neuro-wipe out my bad performance, right?”

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: “And so next time I go on, I’m still the superstar, I’m still the undefeated fighter, I still haven’t been knocked out and I can still fight that way or whatever it is.” You know, the bad business meeting, the horrible presentation – gone. It’s not going to haunt you.

Kirsten: Yeah. So you would have to get to it before the memories were transferred out of the hippocampus to the rest of the brain.

Justin: You have to get in there quick.

Kirsten: But you could get in there, maybe stimulate whatever process it is. I mean, they don’t know what the mechanism is yet.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: They know that as – it just seems as though when new neurons come in, the memories in the hippocampus disappear, they go away, they get erased.

Justin: And then it could also be a treatment for criminal behavior if you can get into the long-term memory because I think a lot of criminal behaviors are probably learned behavior and it’s probably based on past experiences.

So if you have like a career criminal, somebody who’s going back into jail or prison for like the umpteenth time and can sign off on this long-term memory wipe. It’s like, “Well, here’s what you used to do. This is your record. But you don’t have to do that now because you don’t even know how you got involved in that stuff in the first place.”

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That would be pretty interesting as a therapy.

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: As a mental-wipe therapy. Yeah.

Kirsten: And one of the really interesting things that kind of – that supports a lot of research that suggests that exercise is really important for your brain health and for memory and for learning, they found also that voluntary exercise – so they had a group of rodents that they did not irradiate, that were perfectly healthy, normal rats, they allowed them to exercise, they gave them a running wheel, let them exercise.

And the rate of birth of neurons increased in the hippocampal region. And so that speeds up – it sped up the decay of the memories in the hippocampus.

So somehow, exercise stimulates neurogenesis which stimulates the process of moving memories out of the hippocampus to the rest of the brain and making room for new memories within the hippocampus. So that kind of keep exercise, keeps your short-term memory up.

Justin: Right. So we need to get rid of desks in schools and put in like treadmills or stationary bicycles.

Kirsten: Treadmills, that’s right.

Justin: And have the kids in there and pedaling along with the lesson. That would be awesome. Yeah. And the health of the nation would be well-served by that too.

Kirsten: Yeah. It could be great. But this is – I think that is a really interesting aspect of this. I mean, this is still just in rodents, but there are a lot of similarities to what’s happening in rodents as to what’s happening in humans.

We know that humans also have neurogenesis within the hippocampus. So this process could be happening in humans as well. So, you know, there’s nothing wrong with exercising, take that advice and, you know, maybe exercise a bit. It will be good for your brain.

Justin: Yeah. And then go print out that story and bring it to class along with your stationary bicycle and explain to your instructor, you’re just trying to get the most out of your education.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: This next story was sent in via minion (Cooper) who also writes that, “Your family of fans in North Eastern Pennsylvania is still listening every week.”

So, yey!

Kirsten: Yey! Oh, hey. That was going to be part of my minion mail bag. Darn it.

Justin: Well, it still can be. So – oh, rats! Oh, noble beast, oh, brave scientific investigator! Oh, defender of the innocent, finder of unexploited anti-person ammunitions? Rats?

In many parts of the world, landmines left over from forgotten wars litter otherwise productive lands, with the mine life expectancy of over 50 years. These things don’t decay very readily.

They often find innocent victims long after conflicts have ended. But they persist there because of the expense and the dangerous nature of locating and safely discharging the landmines – not a lot of volunteers for that job.

And they happen to be in parts of the world that international campaign banned landmines estimates that more than 80 countries are affected in some way by landmines and other unexploded devices, with Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Columbia and Iraq among the worst affected countries.

And the typical equipment that they use is pretty expensive. I mean, it’s not just metal detectors because there’s lot of expertise than just defusing or blowing these things up.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: But there’s a lot of high tech equipment, but it’s just really expensive and big and hard to get to these places. So a lot of them just stay there on the ground.

Enter Bart Weetjens, Belgian-born rodent breeder. Having heard that scientists have trained gerbils to detect explosives, Bart quickly pondered that anything a gerbil could do, a rat could do better.

“I’m a big rodent lover,” says (Bart). “I had rats throughout my youth so I knew rats are very intelligent creatures and one of the most adaptable species. So we formed an organization and began training rats to seek out the most readily available explosive threat in the world – landmines.”

His organization, APOPO – APOPO, I don’t know what it stands for – currently has rat teams in Tanzania and Mozambique running through minefields and will begin operations in Angola, Congo and Columbia next.

Using the regular machines is extremely slow. You get lots of false indication so it can take a 50 square meters, 60 square yard section can take a full day with a manual demining operation. While a rat can do that amount of area in 15 minutes.

Kirsten: Isn’t that amazing how much quicker the rat is?

Justin: Yeah. And they don’t require a lot of attention and are usually transported in train and are a very useful tool to speed up the detection of mines. And they don’t – these aren’t just like heavy rats they set loose to run across a mine field and start blowing up the rodents what way. They actually go out and detect where they are. They find them.

Kirsten: Yeah. This is not disposable rat.

Justin: The rats survive.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And then it go on to find more landmines. But that’s such an awesome – I don’t know how you get the rats. They must be well trained. And apparently, they work for food. The more food you give them, the happier they are, the more eager they are to train and to find landmines.

Kirsten: Yeah. There’s a – I watched a video on this. I will put the link on the website,, with the show notes. There’s a video from I think Animal Planet that’s available that shows part of the…

Justin: I didn’t see that. I totally want to see that.

Kirsten: …the process of training.

Justin: Where do I see this?

Kirsten: It’s on the web. I will find it.

Justin: Okay.

Kirsten: I do not remember what the link is, but I will find it.

Justin: Awesome.

Kirsten: But I think it’s a really, really great use of our ability to work with animals and the intelligence of another animal species. This animal is small. Rats are really bright.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s able to be trained. And that the breed of rats…

Justin: And now we can wipe their memory if anything goes bad out in the field.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: Like it didn’t happen.

Kirsten: But they’re also getting…

Justin: It didn’t happen.

Kirsten: They’re getting exercised. They’re getting exercise going out and looking for these landmines so it’s reinforcing their memory of how to search for landmines and that, “Hey, I’m a good rat. I’m doing a good job,” right?

Justin: Yeah. Mm hmm. Mm hmm. They are the most noble beast on the planet.

Kirsten: Are they?

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: Is that what you would say?

Justin: I would say so. They help us out in scientific research, they’re getting rid of landmines. I would put them up there at the top.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Interesting.

Justin: I’d go humans first and then rats. And then maybe like…

Kirsten: What about dolphins?

Justin: Dolphins, yeah. They’re up there too.

Kirsten: Dolphins. What about – I don’t know…

Justin: I’d put rats ahead of dolphins though.

Kirsten: …penguins?

Justin: No. They’re cute and all but they’re not…

Kirsten: They’re not so noble.

Justin: …the noblest of creatures.

Kirsten: All right. So, did you know that there could potentially be a problem with hackers hacking pacemakers because of the advances in pacemaker technology?

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Now, researchers are trying to figure out how to protect people’s pacemakers from hacker attacks.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yeah. Nobody’s actually been – nobody that – it’s been reported – has been actually hacked by…

Justin: That we know of.

Kirsten: …that we know of.

Justin: Oh, my goodness.

Kirsten: So there’s been no report of a pacemaker hacking attack. But…

Justin: Maybe we shouldn’t mention it. Maybe we’re giving people ideas, Kirsten.

Kirsten: Oh, my. We’re giving you an idea.

Justin: Oh, my goodness.

Kirsten: Yeah. But manufacturers of pacemakers have started enabling them with wi-fi technology so that when you go in for a checkup or if you’re around a device that is monitoring how your heart is doing, how the pacemaker is working, it can do it just – you don’t have to plug-in to anything. It’s just wirelessly which is really convenient for you, the person with the pacemaker and the healthcare professionals that are helping you out.

So this is a great use of technology.

Justin: But of course, they have never been worried about somebody stealing a password or account number, anything of this nature. So they probably didn’t build in the regular buffers you would for your home wi-fi account so your neighbor can’t leak off of your…

Kirsten: Exactly.

Justin: Oh, geez.

Kirsten: So could you imagine you’re Mr. Person with the pacemaker, wandering around, going to your local cafe and then somebody sitting next to you is like the Bluetooth hacker.

Justin: Some 15-year-old girl is like…

Kirsten: Wi-fi pace – I’m going to mess with this guy.

Stealing – they can access personal information because there is a large amount of personal information in these…

Justin: Really?

Kirsten: Yeah, stored in the electronic components of the pacemaker. But they could also get access to the functioning of the device as well.

Justin: Oh! Oh.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Oh, no.

Kirsten: So researchers working at the University of Massachusetts are trying to cut the hackers off at the pass and so they have developed a system that involves ultrasound to basically allow the pacemaker to sense whether or not the local wi-fi network also has an ultrasound emission that syncs.

Justin: Otherwise, it doesn’t send any…
Kirsten: And it doesn’t send any information unless it senses the – an ultrasound signal. So this is the new design. And so the pacemakers would require you to have a microphone.

Justin: But then the counter to that, the hackers are clever. So the hackers now are cruising around these little ultrasound emitters and they’re pinging people.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It’s just an escalation.

Kirsten: I’m just imagining like this is going to be the voodoo of the future. I mean, it used to be sticking pins in dolls. But now, it’s just computer and wi-fi and ultrasound. And suddenly, someone’s having a heart attack.

Justin: Oh, yeah. I know. I mean the former Vice President Dick Cheney. He can’t go overseas now. He’s a security risk.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: He’s like – he’s got all kinds of top secret information hidden away in his…

Kirsten: His pacemaker. Yeah. So they’re trying to get around the physical proximity of the pacemaker system. But the way it works currently is you could be as far away as ten meters, so within 30 ft of a pacemaker could allow you to get access if you could figure out how to get access.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: People are arguing that this is important because the consequences could be very serious. But right – currently this is a prototype system. They’ve patented the technology involving the ultrasound addition to the wi-fi system. And they’re talking with manufacturers about a prototype.

This is crazy. I mean, this is something that I never would have considered.

If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to This Week in Science with Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Justin Jackson. And if you’d like to call in – we’ve got about nine minutes left in the first half of the show – the phone number here is 530-752-2777.

Justin: This story – next story was sent in by minion and previous guest host (Pamela Sue Taylor) of Australia.

New breast implant may make mastectomy cosmetic cleavage recovery more convenient and could lead to a future where purely cosmetic breast augmentation is much easier to do.

The new implant headed for human testing phase in Australia’s Bernard O’brien Institute of Microsurgery is hardly an implant at all, but a method of regrowing or growing a breast of patient’s own tissues.

In the procedure, a breast-shaped chamber is inserted under the chest’s skin. And it contains a sample of the patient’s fat tissue that is connected to a blood vessel. Within eight months, the fat tissue grows and fills the chamber.

The surgery could replace breast reconstruction and implants all together

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: That’s pretty amazing. Yeah.

Kirsten: That is amazing.

Justin: It’s huge. The women who participate in the upcoming trial all have undergone a mastectomy or partial mastectomy. Down the road, they’re one of the, researcher says, the procedure could potentially be used to regrow other organs using the same sort of principle.

I could see liver working for that. I don’t know what else would.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So it’s a pretty major leap for reconstructive regenerative surgery in medicine. While many futurists have predictions or benchmarks for a brighter future – the curing of the a disease, the invent of paradigm shifting technology or breakthrough materials – I’d have to say that the future that promises easier, cheaper, more natural feeling breast augmentations, near the top of my list.

Kirsten: Of course, it is.

Justin: That’s a pretty – not the most important thing perhaps, but certainly brighter future to come.

Kirsten: We have a caller. Leave it there. Press the button. Let’s let the caller on.

Justin: Good morning, TWIS minion. You’re on the air with This Week in Science.

(Brad): Hi! Good morning from TWIS minion (Brad) out in the cold Midwest.

Justin: Good morning!

Kirsten: Hello. Good morning.

(Brad): Yes. Good morning. In regards to your initial topic at the start of the show and your in-depth conversation regarding the complexity of memory both long-term and short-term memory or potentiation, I wanted to draw our fellow listeners’ attention to a journal that probably – that was published actually in 2008.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Okay.

(Brad): Actually in 2008…

Kirsten: Okay.

(Brad): The Journal of Neuroethics – actually the journal – 2008, the volume one, pages 45-54, written by Walter Glannon, specifically titled on the “Psychopharmacological Enhancement” or the neuroethics thereof.

And it’s a very in-depth not only treatment of this neuroethical question, but he does a very good job of giving an in-depth review of the very aspects of memory that you were discussing, the (crep) involvement and all of the other cellular discoveries that, you know, have been happening.

And I think for those that are interested in that topic, this paper would be a very great read.

Kirsten: Hey, thanks a lot.

Justin: And perhaps a fantastic suggestion for a guest. Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah, definitely. I love the idea of discussing neuroethics of this kind of – this nature. How do we use the neuro-psychopharmacological tools that are coming into practice right now?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I mean, we’ve got all these potential drugs. We have drug targets. We have, you know, receptors. This just published this last week. Scientists have discovered the structure of the NMDA receptor which is a crucial part of long-term potentiation which is a major part of the formation of memories.

So if we have the receptor as a target for drugs, you know, what are going to – you know, how are we going to be affecting memories? How are we going to be affecting the way that people interact with their life? It’s a fabulously interesting concept.

(Brad): It really is. And when you take in to account that there really are two forms of memory – your short-term and your long-term – and there’s a fine balance between the two, when you start tugging on equilibrium one way or the other either through pharmacological interventions or otherwise, what does that ultimately cascade down to?

And, you know, that equilibrium – is that equilibrium in place for a reason, you know, has nature designed us to be that way. And what will happen if we start to modulate these types of things? There are very interesting questions that I think should be debated.

Kirsten: Yeah. Thanks.

Justin: Absolutely. And I think that I would argue that in this age of information where information is key to our success and the way we survive in society, I would suggest that perhaps I’m disabled. And therefore, I could really – I would be for any form of mental augmentation. I would experiment and see what we could do.

Kirsten: Well, I mean, the most basic form is coffee. Here, you have coffee.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You start…

Justin: Yeah. I juice up before every show.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Absolutely.

Kirsten: Boost your metabolism. Thank you very much for calling. That’s a really interesting article topic. Thanks.

(Brad): Okay. Thanks guys.

Kirsten: Bye. Thanks for listening.

(Brad): Bye.

Kirsten: That was great, (Brad) from the Midwest.

Justin: I still want somebody explain to me why is it that I can’t remember a name the moment somebody tells it to me. My short-term memory does not register names at all. They immediately leave my brain.

Kirsten: You got to pay attention.

Justin: And I’ve been in sales for like 15 plus years and somebody will tell me their name. You’re supposed to know their name and say it back to them at some point.

And I’ll hear the name and it goes – and then I have to ask like right after they’ve told me. I don’t register names. Anywhere in my brain, my short-term memory is like, “You know, we don’t need that.” I just don’t need this information.

Kirsten: Yeah. I know for myself, it’s situational, so that sometimes if I’m teaching a class and I have a number of students and I’m focused on it, I can remember the name of every single student in the class.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: However, after the quarter is over and…

Justin: Run into them somewhere.

Kirsten: Names are gone.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know, unless I’ve had like repeated meaningful interactions outside of class, you know, suddenly their names disappear.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: I know I’m not – yeah. It all depends.

Justin: I can’t remember if anybody tells me…

Kirsten: My short term memory is like, “Making room. Making room.”

Justin: If anybody tells me any sort of odd detail about their life or about what they do or about an experience they’ve had, I remember all of it. I remember all of that stuff. I remember all the little details about the person. But their name – gone.

Sometimes these are people I’ve known for like a long time, I will forget their name.

Kirsten: Two minutes left before the end of the first half of the show – a tale of two drugs. Why is it that some drugs interact very well together when you take them? Why is it that others just don’t work at all?

So you take one drug and then the other drug interacts so that it negates the process that the first drug was trying to do.

Researchers were looking – researchers at the Harvard Medical School – Roy Kishony is the name of the lead researcher – were looking at this system of combination drug therapy. And they found that in terms of antibiotics, the drug ciprofloxacin which isn’t actually used very often these days because it’s…

Justin: It’s the big gun.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Cipros – I think that it’s the big one where everything else has failed. This is the one you go to. And try not to over use it because if they use it too often, they’re going to make the enemy stronger.

Kirsten: Yeah. So they started looking at the cellular processes that these drugs interact with and what they do. So what cipro does is it blocks DNA replication, okay? And then they used another drug that is involved – let’s see, what was the name of the drug – tetracycline. Tetracycline blocks protein synthesis.

However, what the cipro does is it ends up putting – it blocks DNA replication. The bacteria goes into a stressed out state, it stops producing ribosomes which are the protein synthesis factories in the cell.

It stops doing that, so you have less protein synthesis. And it’s kind of like the cell is stressed out and it starts conserving energy. It stops reproducing. And that’s how cipro acts on the bacteria to keep their population numbers down.

However, if you add tetracycline, tetracycline inhibits the ribosome and actually ends up correcting for the fact that the cell – it ends up correcting for what the cipro was doing.

So in effect, it ends up canceling out what the first drug did and ends up making it as if there were no drugs taken at all.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: And so then the bacteria can adapt to the different drugs that are being taken because the second drug actually opens up this possibility for the bacteria to continue surviving.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. So it’s this interesting interaction between the two drugs. And so now they’re trying to figure out, they’re trying to take a look at what allows bacteria to flourish and what doesn’t. And really starting to ask the questions about how cells alter their genetic programs, how bacteria alter their genetic programs in the presence of these antibiotics to be able to understand how pathogens grow and how we can actually stop their growth using antibiotics in a useful manner.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Yeah. Normally, these drug interactions like, “Hey, two drugs together are better than one.” And so that’s where most of…

Justin: Yeah. Because you’ll cover all your basis you’re thinking…

Kirsten: Yeah. And that’s where most of the research is going. But what they’re finding is not always what happens. And so we need to spend more time looking at these – how these drugs actually interact in the cellular processes. That’s really…

Justin: That’s brilliant.

Kirsten: Yeah. Yeah. So note to self: don’t take cipro and tetracycline together.

Justin: Together.

Kirsten: So – yeah.

Justin: Okay.

Kirsten: Yeah. We are at the half hour. And we are going to be taking a break right now for a few messages. We’ll be back.

Justin: With more in This Week in Science.

Kirsten: Stay tuned.


Kirsten: Justin wrote a book. Amazing, right? It’s called “Ome.” And you can go to to buy yourself a copy of Ome. Buy one for yourself. Buy one for a friend. Buy one for a complete stranger. Justin’s book – Ome. Go to Buy Justin’s book. Buy it.

Justin: Thank you for listening to TWIS. If you rely on this show for weekly science-y updates, please understand that we rely on your support to keep bringing those to you.

Donate. Keep the science-y goodness on the air. We’ve made it very easy for you. Go to our website Click on the button that will allow you to donate $2, $5, $10. Or if you like, you can donate any amount of money you choose as many times as you like.

Again, just go to and donate today. We need your support. And we thank you in advance for it.


Justin: And we are back.

Kirsten: That’s right. This is This Week in Science. And we have a little bit more science to go still. That’s right. What’s your next story, Justin? I wanted to – oh, that sounds really healthy. I just wanted to say that…

Justin: Wait. That’s my intro to my…

Kirsten: (Carraback) – (John Carraback) in Twitter, he waved at Ali. He says, “Welcome to TWIS.”

Justin: Yey!

Kirsten: Yey, welcome to TWIS.

Justin: So you have to do that again now.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: The latest in iPhone apps is under way by a team of Australian and US researchers – iCough, or something like it – a high tech audio software that will diagnose pneumonia, flu and other respiratory diseases by analyzing the sound signature of a cough.

This would be…

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: Yeah – allow a patient to hack into their cellphone, mp3 player, computer or live over the radio, as the case may be, for instant diagnosis.

University of Queensland Dr. Udantha – anyway, out at the University of Queensland, they are working on ways to fit phones and mp3 players with micro – mini microphones that are purpose-built to record coughing.

Udantha Abeyratne? I can’t pronounce the name. I’m sorry. “It’s unorthodox,” says the good doctor.

And the target is to build something that can do screening in the field. The technology which aims to help medical efforts in developing countries could get down on trips by doctors to rural areas.

There’s a Massachusetts company, STAR Analytical Services, that’s also working on similar software.

“Why haven’t we been measuring coughs?” says STAR’s Suzanne Smith. It’s the most common symptom when a patient presents. And we are relying on doctors and nurses with good old technology from the 19th century.

The final 150 milliseconds of the cough, which typically lasts only a quarter of a second, contains distinctive sounds that could help medics identify a problem cough over the phone.

Kirsten: I think that’s really – it’s a genius use of technology.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: As speakers and microphones get better and better, this is, you know, being able to diagnose remotely is so great.

Justin: And being able to – really good visual signature on our cough to measure up against other coughs. It seems like it’s a pretty clever idea. The university…

Kirsten: I didn’t – I mean, to think that different kinds of coughs have different signatures that are indicative of the potential underlying disease – that’s amazing.

Justin: It makes so much sense though. I mean, if you’ve got phlegmy lungs versus throat thing going on from it, it’s going to sound different.

Kirsten: Are you asthmatic? Is it pneumonia? Are you faking it?

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: This is going to be terrible for kids trying to skip school. “(Coughs) Mom, I don’t feel good.” “Cough into the mic kid.”

Justin: Oh, no. Okay. This is a side story. But I actually disbelieved my son once. I think he’s about five years old. And everything was cool like we were having a great time, singing in the car and on the way to school.

And then we get right to the school and we’re walking in. He goes, “Papa, I don’t feel good.” I’m like, “Yeah, right. Sure. Come on. It’s just school. Come on. I’ll come pick you up after school. It will be cool. We’ll go back out and play again.”

And then I get a call an hour later. He’s throwing up at school. I was like – I felt like the worst papa in the world. I didn’t believe him.

Kirsten: Yeah. Right.

Justin: Oh, that was terrible. Yeah. Right. Yeah. We’re just singing in the car, having a great time. As soon as walked up to the class, “I don’t feel…” “Yeah, sure.”

Kirsten: I did that once.

Justin: Anyway, so I believe him for everything now.

Kirsten: I personally actually did that once. I was going to fake it. I was waking up in the morning. I said, “Mom, I don’t feel good. I don’t feel good.” And then I threw up. I was like, “Whoa! Wait, I really don’t feel good.”

Justin: “No. No. No. I’m sick. No. I don’t want to be sick. Let me go to school!”

So University of Manchester researcher Jacqueline Smith has been studying coughs for several years says, “The technology is important, that there is no question that there’s a lot of variability in the coughs of people. But if they can find these certain parameters to use coughs to diagnose disease, that could be fabulous. It could really improve disease diagnosis and help improve people’s access to healthcare.”

Kirsten: That’s really awesome.

Justin: Isn’t it?

Kirsten: Yeah. So this week in research with the highest likelihood of abuse…

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Yeah. Something that will be hard to test for in the Olympics…

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: But, I mean, you thought steroids were bad with baseball, this is something that could be even more…

Justin: Badder.

Kirsten: Yeah. There’s another word there that I’m missing somewhere. I don’t know.

A study in Science Translational Medicine – this is via Ed Dyer – has moved closer to clinical trials. It’s a gene delivery or gene therapy process where they inject a naturally occur – a gene delivery process – what’s the song that’s playing here? What’s going on in the background? Let me turn that down. Okay.

Justin: It’s only in your head, Kirsten.

Kirsten: It’s not in my head.

Justin: I couldn’t hear anything. I swear.

Kirsten: Really.

Justin: I could not hear anything over here.

Kirsten: Justin, this science music is singing to me. So, okay. This gene delivery strategy, it produces a protein that inhibits myostatin. This is – it produces follistatin. It inhibits myostatin. Myostatin is a growth factor that’s expressed in skeletal muscle.

So they deliver this to the quadriceps of non-human primates. So they’re in primate research already. This isn’t in rodents. This isn’t…

Justin: One step away.

Kirsten: One step away from people. It ends up expressing a gene for a long period of time with muscle enhancing effects.

Justin: Awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah. Injection right into your muscle upregulates gene expression that actually builds muscle…

Justin: Bring it.

Kirsten: …leading to bigger strength. So the purpose of this research is…

Justin: Sign me up.

Kirsten: …therapeutic in nature. It’s looking at people who have muscle disorders, forms of muscular dystrophy, muscle wasting diseases. I mean, the purpose of this is therapeutic in nature.

Justin: Overly lanky body design…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …looking to bulk up for a trip of summer. Is that part if the list? It should be.

Kirsten: Right. But if it’s simply an injection that upregulates a particular gene leading to the production of muscle protein that gets incorporated into the muscles, the muscle growth occurred for 12 weeks.

Justin: Awesome.

Kirsten: Three months after the treatment. Treatment. Muscle growth. Three months.

Justin: That’s brilliant.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That’s a huge step forward.

Kirsten: And then after the muscle growth, they didn’t really seem to go away. It was – it stayed.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: So it’s growing and then stabilization.

Justin: I want it. Where do I get it?

Kirsten: Right. Doesn’t everybody?

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: I mean, this is something I am fully going to put my idea, my crystal ball prediction out there that we’re going to find out that the gene therapy that they’re using for therapeutic use is going to be a big – on-the-list for the Olympic testing committee.

Justin: But why? But why?

Kirsten: Just look for expression of this gene. Well what if you naturally have the expression of that gene upregulated?

Justin: And what if you don’t? So what?

Kirsten: How can you tell?

Justin: The thing that always bothers me about that sort of thing is that it’s like people who don’t want to read books to learn, people who don’t want to do whatever they can to get physically fitter and stronger and, you know, compete more physically.

You should have, you know, it’s like reading a lot of books. Occasionally, you’re going to get a bad book. It might have a side effect on you that’s going to…

Kirsten: Wait. Wait. Wait. No. We’ve had this discussion before. But the way that the Olympics works currently is that it’s supposed to be natural, you know, natural enhancement.

So doing push-ups to make your muscles stronger, working out, physically enhancing yourself through natural means. This is using medicine and technology which is currently not accepted according to sports rules, right?

Justin: But there is nothing natural because there is already science.

Kirsten: Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Justin: No, no, no, there’s already – what are you “blah, blah, blah” -ing me for? There’s already a lot of science and research in medicine involved in the way people train…

Kirsten: Yeah. Absolutely.

Justin: …from being able to prevent injuries to doing routines that can maximize a workout routine, to maximize your fitness.

Kirsten: Absolutely.

Justin: And if you don’t have access to that, if you’re just like, “Hey, I’m going to give my shot because I – well I don’t workout on any particular routine. I haven’t used science and research to help me in my workout. I’m going to go try to compete.” You’re going to lose.

So other people are already using technology and information. This is just, you know, this is just good…

Kirsten: Hey, it’s one more use of technology and information. That’s a great argument…

Justin: And it gives access to everybody.

Kirsten: But it’s not currently accepted.

Justin: It means we can all juice up and we can all compete.

Kirsten: No, only people who can get it can juice up.

Justin: What I’m saying is when it becomes readily accessible, then we can all compete in the Olympics.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And that is the – that will be the modern age. Because then it’s all about how you think in the game, the strategy of the run, the strategy of the jump. So everything else comes into play.

Kirsten: You’re thinking around the current system.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: All I’m saying is that with the current system, this is going to potentially be a problem because how can you tell the difference – don’t say anything.

Justin: Why are you – I’m really like, you know…

Kirsten: How can you tell the difference between a person who naturally has high levels of gene expression versus somebody who has injected some gene therapy that upregulates.

Justin: That’s a natural injection.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: An injection of a natural gene.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: It’s all nature.

Kirsten: Moving on. Moving on. Next story. I’m over this conversation.

Justin: All right. I’ll bring another story. Let’s see. What do we got.

If right now at this very moment you could push a button and turn your current automobile into an electric vehicle, would you push that button?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yeah. Why not? That would be awesome. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute have pushed the button on a 2001 Scion XB turning the toaster-looking car into an electric commuter vehicle that will serve as its test vehicle for new community-based approach to electric vehicle design, conversion and sort of up-electric-ing of the vehicle.

The vehicle is part of the new research project called “ChargeCar,” which you can probably go google that ChargeCar and find it. It’s headed by Illah Nourbakhsh – I’m not getting any breaks on names today – Illah Nourbakhsh, Associate Professor of Robotics.

The project is exploring how electric vehicles can be customized to cost effectively meet an individual specific commuting needs and how and electric vehicle’s efficiency can be boosted and its battery life extended by using artificial intelligence to manage the power system.

So currently, most cars being made – this is a quote, “Most electric cars today are being designed with top-down engineering to match the performance of gas-powered cars. Our goal is to revolutionize urban commuting by taking a different approach — by first analyzing the needs, conditions and habits of the daily commutes of actual people and then using this ‘commute ecology’ to develop electric vehicles suited to each unique commute.”

So the idea is not everybody who’s getting a hybrid needs the full gas power behind it. If your commute is basically an in-town commute, you could probably do with a much less expensive vehicle overall and something that’s even more efficient to your particular needs, costs less money to drive, everything else.

So what they’re doing is they’re trying to come up with a system that will just use the skeletal system of existing vehicles, pull out the engine, slap in batteries and have that system set up for the way that you drive as an individual. Very brilliant.

And part of the things that they’re doing – now I hear music.

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: What’s this?

Kirsten: Because it’s topical. It’s topical. What were you going to say?

Justin: They’re using some sort of super capacitors. They’re using super capacitors and electromechanical capacitors with unusually high energy densities have typically been used to start locomotives, tanks and diesel trucks because it can store and rapidly release large amounts of electrical power.

But I think this is what we need. I think every community needs to take place in a little upstart company of turning your gas cars into electric…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …instead of turning in your car and getting a new one because you’ve put too many miles on it.

Kirsten: But converting.

Justin: Converting to electric.

Kirsten: Yeah. You can have, you know, local chains, local franchises, whatever that allow you to do this locally so you don’t have to – yeah.

Justin: Mm hmm. So it’s is a site you can go on. It’s a community-based clearing house for data on how to do these sorts of things.

Kirsten: That’s great.

Justin: It’s brilliant.

Kirsten: I love community stuff. It’s fantastic.

Would you rather have golden gloves or golden ears?

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Or golden pipes?

Justin: Huh?

Kirsten: You know.

Justin: Yeah. I could use one. I would go with – yeah, third one. I want to be able to sing. Laaa-la-la-la-la-la-lala.

Kirsten: All right. Well, Frank Sinatra, you are not.

Justin: Laaa-la-la-la-la-la-lala. No?

Kirsten: No. Well the first, you got to train like Mohammad Ali. It’s the last one – you’ll probably learn with it.

Justin: If you don’t have the ear…

Kirsten: The second.

Justin: If you don’t have the ear, the golden pipes do you no good. That’s what I’ve learned.

Kirsten: Right. So the golden ear actually is closer than it ever was before. Researchers have, you know, in engineering a better mouse – which they are always trying to do – they have now created mice with a golden ear.

And the funny thing is that they took two mice that had really bad hearing to begin with to create offspring mice that have great hearing as they get older.

Justin: Oh, wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. The story is via (Louis Lotto, Jr.)

Justin: Wait. An ear that improves with age?

Kirsten: Well, not that it improves with age, but that it doesn’t get worse. So most people – the majority of people experience age-related hearing decline or deterioration. So just as you get older, either the cells in your ear start dying off, so it’s cochlear deterioration, or you get brain deterioration that it makes it harder for you to actually pull out the sounds, say, of a voice in a noisy room.

So there’s actual – the hair cells, the hearing cells in the ear can deteriorate or the neuro pathways within the brain that allow you to hear just don’t work so well.

Justin: Or you can do too much OxyContin and…

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Isn’t that what happened to Limbaugh?

Kirsten: Rush, yeah.

Justin: His Oxy habit, his Hillbilly Heroin habit knocked his ears out for a while.

Kirsten: Oh, man.

Justin: So he had to take a break from the radio show.

Kirsten: Okay. Well, this doesn’t have anything to do with that.

Justin: No.

Kirsten: But usually in this laboratory of Dr. Robert Frisina, they study deterioration of hearing. That’s why this University of Rochester Medical Center laboratory – normally, all the rats they deal with are the ones that their hearing gets worse.

And they have different strains of mice. Some that have a slow progression of decline as they get older. And another strain of mice that do pretty great. And then all of a sudden, it gets bad really fast.

They took these two types of mice and crossed them. And then their offspring have what they call “golden ears”…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …in that, they can hear very well into old age. They don’t get bad. And so now, they’re going to use these golden eared mice to try and understand what it is about these particular mice that allows them to hear so well because it’s only about 5% of people, and usually they’re women, who have golden ears as they age.

The rest, 95% of people experience some amount of deterioration as they get older. So what is it about the 5%, you know, who don’t end up needing hearing aids as they get older? What is it? What allows them to continue to hear while everybody else starts fading into the audio background?

They did a bunch of tests on the mice to figure out what it is. They still haven’t figured out what it is that makes them special. But they now have a new kind of mouse that “opens up,” says Dr. Frisina, “opens up a new, clear window into the aging brain.” And, “It really allows us to look at the auditory systems in the brain in a very pure way, without distortion from the ear.”

Justin: Sometimes I get so jealous of the future.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Everybody’s going be physically fit, Roman god physiques.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And perfect ear, perfect pitch.

Kirsten: Brain that never goes bad.

Justin: No. They remember everything.

Kirsten: Yeah. No wrinkles.

Justin: So lucky, these future citizens of the earth.

Kirsten: Just, you know, take your pills. Be like – what’s this like (Kirswild). Take your vitamins and your pills. Make it to the singularity and then we’ll just download you and everything will be fine.

Justin: Oh, yeah.

Kirsten: Do you have any more stories?

Justin: I could do more. Have we got any minion mail bag?

Kirsten: We do have.

Justin: Are we going to go there?

Kirsten: We do have minion mailbag.

Justin: Just do minion mailbag. I want to hear what the minions are saying before I get on to…

Kirsten: All right. All right.

Justin: Right-handed chimpanzees.

Kirsten: Wait. What?

Justin: Yeah. Yeah.

Kirsten: I like the chimpanzees.

Justin: Okay. Right-handed chimpanzees are providing clues perhaps to the origin of human language. This is – since most linguistic functions in humans are controlled by the left cerebral hemisphere and left-sided brain means it’s the right side of the body that’s being controlled or interacted with tightly there.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: The study of captive chimpanzees at Yerkes National Primate Research in Atlanta, Georgia reported that language – that there may be some evolutionary roots and just thorough communication of our common ancestor.

So what they found is there’s – the majority of the chimpanzees in the study showed a significant bias towards right-handed gestures while communicating. And mostly they’re actually communicating towards humans. We were observing them.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Which is also sort of interesting. So the idea is it’s not seen as often and just inter-chimp communication. But when they needed to communicate with humans who they don’t share chimp dialect with, chimp language with…

Kirsten: Right. Yeah.

Justin: …they would resort to hand gesturing to try to communicate things to us. And they were using the right hand predominantly.

We favor right hand, but why? You know, maybe that’s part of it, too. Maybe it’s because we’re using that hand connected to the part of the brain that does communication. And then therefore language began to develop in the brain because it remembered different signs and things.

What’s also – also they found…

Kirsten: That’s an interesting hypothesis.

Justin: Yeah. Well, that’s my – I think that’s their hypothesis. I think it’s the same.

Kirsten: It’s interesting. Yeah.

Justin: And what’s also sort of, I guess, observed here was that the use of these hand gestures was sort of an international communication sort of a thing like what they were gesturing is very much like what we might gesture for pointing towards something.

They had a hand-slap gesture. They had like, you know, an extended arm like they’re wanting something. I mean, these are things we could recognize from any human as far as what they wanted as well. So it’s very interesting.

Kirsten: Fascinating. I like it – those right-handed monkeys. And moving on…

Justin: Not monkeys. Gosh.

Kirsten: Oh, sorry.

Justin: Apes, you know.

Kirsten: Apes. Chimpanzees.

Justin: You don’t want to get all kinds of hate mail over that.

Kirsten: Apes. Sorry. I know. I don’t want any hate mail.

Listener mail bag pulling in. Let’s pull something out of the mailbag here. Oh, I got one from (Gary Ridder), minion (Gary Ridder).

He says, “I watched the 20/20 program last night on the cat lady concept that showed one woman with 126 cats in her house. She used to be normal, and somehow got caught up in the cat life after forced retirement.”

Justin: I wonder how that happened.

Kirsten: “Not a single word about toxoplasma gondii.”

Justin: It’s a cover up. It’s a conspiracy.

Kirsten: “What a disappointment. It could have made the program so much more interesting. Actually, the reporter really had no idea as to why these women were that way.

My favorite moment of the program was the woman mixing stewed chicken with cat food in a big pan using her bare hands saying she had to remember not to lick her fingers afterward. And then taking her messy hands and rubbing them clean on the fur of one of the dozens of cats around her.

Yuck! I love the one cat I feed everyday, but pray my life never becomes one cat, two cats, three cats, more cats.”

Yeah, watch out for the toxoplasma.

Justin: Toxoplasma gondii, you know.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Cat lady.

Justin: And I think it’s horrible that they’re exploiting this poor infected individual for their entertainment needs. This person needs treatment, people.

Kirsten: That’s right, treatment. Another letter from the mailbag. We have (Logan Waterman) writes in, “Proposing a new award show.” And his nomination is “2012 for the worst science in a science-based movie. If you haven’t seen this film, don’t.”

Justin: Oh, geez.

Kirsten: “Wait until the DVD release and then get together with friends and make it a drinking game. Every time there is bad science, take a shot. You will be unconscious by the third act and won’t have to experience the ending.

I will give you the kicker for me. This was the explanation for the Earth’s impending destruction. Keep in mind that it was not a scientist explaining the situation to a layman or the press, this was an astrophysicist explaining to a geologist on the president’s science council.

This is not an exact quote, but the terminology is as used, ‘Solar flares are causing neutrinos to mutate into an unknown nuclear particle which is reacting with the Earth’s core, causing it to heat up like a microwave.’”

Really. Mutating neutrinos.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: “My guess is they blew their budget on CGI explosions and couldn’t afford a science or engineering advisor. I could feel brain cells screaming and dying for two hours.”

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So this is our first in the Minion Movie Reviews.

Justin: I think I want to see it just to see all the CGI stuff blowing up.

Kirsten: Yeah. I personally have not seen it myself. I’ve been boycotting, but I – there’s a certain amount of “I just want to know how bad the science really is.”

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: It’s kind of like watching Fringe. I love Fringe. But the science is awful.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Awful. It makes me hurt inside sometimes. But I have to watch it. I have to know. Man. All right. Until next week, everyone. Keep reading the TWIS book club’s book of the month. It’s 1492 by Charles Mann.

And I want to give some shout outs to Tim Beauchamp, (Weaver Cooper) and family, (Bill Cole), (Wesley Vants), (Rob Purit) and (Alexander Ramsey). I want to thank Ed Dyer for sending in stories, (Louis Lotta, Jr.), (Dale Fisher) as well for some stories. Great help. Thanks so much.

Justin: Thank you everyone for listening. We hope you enjoyed the show. TWIS is also available via podcast. You can go to our website and click on subscribe to the TWIS science podcast.

Or for more information, just to find it, go to iTunes and put in This Week in Science and you should find us there, too.

Kirsten: Yeah. We’re in there. For more information on anything that you have heard here today, show notes are going to be available on our website

Ali is writing them up.

Justin: Yes.

Kirsten: So, you know, you’re going to read them. You know, it’s making her feel good and helpful.

Justin: And they’re very extensive now.

Kirsten: They’re great.

Justin: They’ve noticed the notes have gotten very extensive recently.

Kirsten: That’s right. And we want to hear from you, so email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS somewhere in the subject line or your email won’t get to us.

Kirsten: Oh. That will be very sad.

Justin: We want to get your feedback, so put that in there. If you have a topic you would like use to cover, suggestion for interview, please let us know.

Kirsten: That’s right. And we will be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30pm Pacific Time . You can listen to us live like all sorts of people on Twitter. They told me they’re listening live.

(Jeff Coffey), (SPO Spartan104), (John Carreback), (Geographer).

Justin: Minion (Brad) called in from the Midwest.

Kirsten: Minion (Brad) called in. All these people listening live. You can too every Tuesday at 8:30am Pacific. And you can join us again for more great science news.

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

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.