New Canadian Study Analyzes Nightmares and Bad Dreams

Posted January 31st, 2014 at 8:43 pm (UTC+0)

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare. (Alysa L. Miller via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Waking up in the morning after having a bad dream at night might not be the best way to start the day, but, a terrifying nightmare can rock you awake from a sound sleep, leaving you scared and confused.

A new study released by psychology researchers Geneviève Robert and Antonio Zadra at the University of Montreal has revealed that nightmares indeed pack a much bigger emotional punch than simply having a bad dream.

Yes there is a difference between nightmares and bad dreams.  Zadra sums up the difference between the two in terms of intensity.

Nightmares, according to Zadra are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare.  Having a bad dream can also be disturbing, but you continue to sleep and wake up as you normally would.  You may also remember the content of the bad dream as soon as you wake up or perhaps later in the day but, “there’s no temporal relationship between the content of the (bad) dream and us waking up from it,” said Zadra.

Zadra adds that nightmares end up giving rise to much more emotional distress than bad dreams do.  The researchers asked their volunteer test subjects to rate the intensity of the emotions they experience within their dreams.  After analyzing what the volunteers had written the researchers found that nightmares came out to be much more emotionally intense than bad dreams overall.

Fear is a common emotion expressed in a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Fear is a common emotion that drives a nightmare or bad dream (Kris Krug via Flickr/Creative Commons)

And, while most people tend to link fear to nightmares and bad dreams, believe it or not it isn’t always the driving factor.  While fear does drive a majority of nightmares and bad dreams, Zadra says that about 35% of the nightmares and 50% of the bad dreams of the 10,000 they studied contained other primary emotions such as sadness, confusion, guilt, anger, disgust, and others.  As a result, nightmares can intensify a wide range of negative emotions.

So did the researchers find a common theme with nightmares and bad dreams?  Zadra said that the most frequently reported themes involved physical aggression or interpersonal conflicts, such as one where the dreamer is having an intense argument or is being humiliated by either a co-worker or family member.  Other themes related to helplessness, failure or health related concerns such as being told that you’re about to die since you have cancer or learning of someone else’s death.

Zadra said that being chased, the theme commonly used for nightmares in a number of books and movies, is actually quite rare, occurring in only about 10% of the nightmares and 5% of the bad dreams that were studied.

There are theme differences in the nightmares of men and of women.  Robert and Zadra report that nightmares in men were more likely to contain themes of disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world, while women were twice more likely than men to have nightmares that contained themes involving interpersonal conflicts with a spouse, co-workers or family member.

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Women tend to have nightmares that contain themes involving interpersonal conflicts such as having an arguement with a loved one (Stuart Anthony via Flickr/Creative Commons)

While most dreams are visual or a kind of a “cinema of the mind” Zadra says other senses can manifest themselves in nightmares and bad dreams.  Dreams can be auditory in nature, Zadra said that for example we can hear people scream or talk to us, hear sirens wailing or a dog barking. On rare occasions Zadra said that we can also feel pain, feel the cold or warmth around us, and sometimes we can also taste or smell things in our dreams.

While an old saying says that eating a heavy meal before bedtime will bring on a bad dream or nightmare, “I think we can probably put to rest the idea that having the pepperoni pizza before going to bed induces nightmares,” said Zadra.  While eating a heavy meal at before bedtime can give us indigestion or wake us up during the night, by and large nightmares tend to occur in periods when people are under stress or self-doubt.

Having recurring nightmares may also be linked to a traumatic event. Soldiers returning from war sometimes, dream of the traumatizing events that occurred to them. The researchers also pointed out that the consumption or withdrawal of alcohol or psychotropic drugs could also explain the frequency or intensity of nightmares.

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

Men are more likely to have nightmares about disasters and calamities such as floods, earthquakes, wars and the end of the world (Frankincensebarbados Plasticfoods via Flicker/Creative Commons)

“Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep – and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night. People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia,” said Zadra.

While they are incredibly disturbing, having frequent nightmares can be treated, according to the researchers.  Zadra said that one way to treat recurring nightmares is by using visualization techniques, such when the dreamer learns to change the scenario of his dream and visualize it in his mind by using a mental imagery technique.

A study based on the research conducted by Robert and Zadra was recently published in the journal “Sleep”.

Dr. Zadra joins us on this week’s radio edition of “Science World” to talk about the research he and his colleague Geneviève Robert conducted on bad dreams and nightmares. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview in the player below.


New Body Clock Info Could Help Treat Diabetes, Obesity

Posted January 29th, 2014 at 10:54 pm (UTC+0)
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This diagram depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). (Yassine Mrabet via Wikimedia Commons)

This diagram depicts the circadian patterns typical of someone who rises early in morning, eats lunch around noon, and sleeps at night (10 p.m.). (Yassine Mrabet via Wikimedia Commons)

California researchers have gained fresh new insight into the factors that influence our internal clocks and say their findings could lead to new treatments for metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes.

“Our group has been fascinated with circadian rhythms for over 10 years now, as they represent a marvelous example of robust control at the molecular scale in nature,” said Frank Doyle, chair of University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the principal investigator for the UCSB team. “We are constantly amazed by the mechanisms that nature uses to control these clocks, and we seek to unravel their principles for engineering applications as well as shed light on the underlying cellular mechanisms for medical purposes.”

All living creatures have their own built-in biological clock which produces oscillations in a roughly 24-hour cycle that regulate various physiological and behavioral tasks. In humans, this complex body clock helps time and control many of our bodily functions such as eating, sleeping, body temperature, blood pressure and the production of certain hormones that regulate various internal organs.

Our blood pressure for example, doesn’t remain constant; it rises and falls depending on the time of day or night.  Our senses, such as sight, smell and taste, are also controlled by our circadian rhythm. Our physical lives in essence are run by the beat of our internal clock.

“These oscillations are caused by genetic circuits. So you’ll have a gene that’s produced, and when it’s in its finished form, it will turn itself off,” said Peter St. John, lead author of the study and a researcher in UCSB’s Department of Chemical Engineering. He added that the proteins and genes that produce the daily oscillations clear out when they’ve done their jobs, allowing the body to restart the process of producing these materials once again. All of this takes place within a cycle that takes roughly 24 hours to complete.

Circadian rhythms are affected by things like travel over time zones, diet and light exposure. (Peter Allen illustration)

Circadian rhythms are affected by things like travel over time zones, diet and light exposure.
(Peter Allen illustration)

A person’s genetics do play a part in these rhythms, according to the researchers. For example, if your parents were night people, there’s a good chance that you will be too. But other factors, such as environment, daily habits and lifestyle, also affect our internal clock.

“It’s not just this free-running oscillator,” said St. John. “It gets these inputs from light. For instance, if you get light early in the morning, it’ll speed up something so your phase is adjusted to the time of day.”

St. John also pointed out other influences that can adjust a person’s circadian rhythm are those such as the time they eat, the kind of drugs they take, whether they have a work schedule that involves varied shift times, or if they take trips that often take them across time zones.

The researchers found that our bodies can get into trouble whenever our internal clock is thrown off-kilter due to these factors. This is also known as having a low-amplitude rhythm.

This low-amplitude rhythm can have an impact on necessary cellular activity that is supposed to take place at certain times of the day or night.

The researchers said these disruptions to our internal clock could lead to ailments like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  Looking at some very basic research, it has also been found that these low-amplitude rhythms have also been linked with diseases such as Alzheimer’s as well as certain liver conditions.

The research team looked at proteins called Period (PER) and Cryptochrome (CRY) that help regulate and control our circadian clocks and developed models that demonstrated how two small-molecule drugs, Longdaysin and KL0001, impacted these proteins.

They felt the insight into the mechanisms behind the metabolic aspects of circadian rhythms that they gained could lead to therapies to decrease the risk of diseases that are associated with disrupted rhythms.

The researchers, who outlined their findings in in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, plan to continue their research in this area.

Hand Washing, Zinc Are Best Defense Against Colds

Posted January 27th, 2014 at 5:27 pm (UTC+0)
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(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

Finding a cure for the common cold has long been seen by many as something akin to the search for the Holy Grail, but Canadian researchers say they have a good idea about what best prevents and treats the malady.

Writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the researchers suggest that simply washing your hands and taking zinc are the best things you can do to prevent a cold, and that taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, perhaps in combination with decongestants, are the best way to treat colds.

A cold, which is usually accompanied by symptoms such as a cough, stuffy or runny nose, and sore throat, is usually at its worse for the first three days. While a cold lasts anywhere from a week to 10 days, it can sometimes last as long as three weeks, according to the researchers.

Colds are usually caused by a virus and not a bacterial infection.  According to the researchers, only about 5 percent of those who were clinically diagnosed got a cold because of a bacterial infection, yet some doctors improperly prescribe antibiotics to treat viral infections.

One of the best ways to prevent colds, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

One of the best ways to prevent a cold, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water. (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

According to the Canadian team, adults tend to catch a cold about two to three times a year while children 2 and under catch a cold about six times a year.

The researchers also point out just how expensive getting a cold can be. They estimate, using 7-year-old data, that Americans seeking medical treatment for their colds—including trips to the doctor, prescriptions and other medication, not to mention complications such as secondary infections—pay out around $17 billion a year. Other costs, such as missed work due to a cold or taking care of a loved one with a cold, tack on another $25 billion a year. Colds also cause declines in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving, according to Dr. Michael Allan of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Dr. Bruce Arroll at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

So what works in preventing and treating the common cold?

It looks like good old hand washing, along with alcohol based disinfectants/sanitizers and gloves are the most effective, according to the team, which reviewed data from a number of randomized control trials.

Canadian researchers also say that taking zinc could help prevent the common cold (Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian researchers say  taking zinc might help prevent the common cold. (Wikimedia Commons)

They also found, in two randomized control trials, that Zinc may help prevent colds for children and perhaps adults, too.  Their studies indicate that children who took 10 or 15 mg doses of zinc sulfate each day got fewer colds and didn’t miss as much school due to the malady. The researchers think adults could also benefit from taking zinc, although no specific data on this was reviewed.

The researchers also found some evidence that another cold-fighting ingredient might be found in our guts and that taking probiotics might be beneficial. Since the organisms and formulation (pills or liquid) used in the probiotic treatments were varied in their studies, the researchers had difficulty making specific comparisons.

As far as treating the cold, the team found that antihistamines combined with decongestants and/or pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be somewhat effective in treating colds in older children and adults, but not so for children less than 5 years of age

For the pain and fever associated with the cold, the researchers said both ibuprofen and acetaminophen are helpful, while Ibuprofen seems to be best for treating fever in children.

A lot of people use nasal sprays to help with runny nose or congestion.  But researchers studying ipratropium, a drug used to treat allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, found that it might be helpful in relieving a runny nose (when taken in a nasal spray) but doesn’t help with congestion.

The researchers also looked at other popular cold remedies such as ginseng, gargling, vapor rubs and homeopathic therapies and found the benefits of their use to treat a cold were unclear.

Researchers found that ibuprofen seemed to be best for treating fever in children (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers find ibuprofen seems to be most effective for treating fever in children. (Wikimedia Commons)

The team found that cough medicine provided only a slight benefit to adults and was of no help to children. Instead of cough medicine, researchers suggest parents give their children honey since they found it can slightly relieve coughs in children over age 1. They also called the use of vitamin C as a preventative and treatment into question as well.

“Much more evidence now exists in this area, but many uncertainties remain regarding interventions to prevent and treat the common cold,” the authors wrote. “We focused on RCTs and systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs for therapy, but few of the studies had a low risk of bias. However, many of the results were inconsistent and had small effects (e.g., vitamin C), which arouses suspicion that any noted benefit may represent bias rather than a true effect.”

Evidence of Water Vapor Found on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Posted January 24th, 2014 at 8:28 pm (UTC+0)

Artists rendition of the water vapor spewing asteroid Ceres shown in its orbit around the sun (IMCCE-Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/Y.Gominet)

Artist’s rendition of the water vapor spewing from dwarf planet Ceres, which is shown in its orbit around the sun. (IMCCE-Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/Y.Gominet)

Scientists have found signs of water vapor on the dwarf planet known as Ceres.

“This is the first time water vapor has been unequivocally detected on Ceres or any other object in the asteroid belt and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” said Michael Küppers of the European Space Agency.

The scientists, writing in the journal Nature, believe the water vapor is produced on Ceres when its orbit brings it close enough to the sun to melt parts of its icy surface.

The water vapor, heated by the warmth of the sun, then blasts above the Dwarf planet in plumes at a rate of about 6 kilograms per second, according to the research team. The water vapor disappears whenever Ceres’ orbit takes it away from the sun.

Ceres is the largest and roundest object to inhabit the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Dwarf planet Ceres as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 (NASA/ESA)

Dwarf planet Ceres as seen by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2004. (NASA)

Ceres is about 950 kilometers in diameter, has a rocky interior and is coated with a thick layer of ice. Scientists believe the dwarf planet has so much ice that if it were all melted, it would produce more fresh water than is available on Earth.

Up until 2006, Ceres was classified as a large asteroid, but then the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which is responsible for naming planetary objects, reclassified it as a dwarf planet because of its large size.

Along with Ceres, the IAU currently lists four other dwarf planets in our solar system. They are Pluto (formerly a full-fledged planet), Eris, Makemake and Haumea, all of which orbit the sun beyond Neptune.  Of the five, Ceres is the only dwarf planet known to exist in the asteroid belt.

While it’s been previously thought that ice existed on Ceres, it wasn’t until scientists using tools such as the Herschel space telescope‘s Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared (HIFI) were able to spot a clear spectral signature of water vapor.

Artist concept of the Dawn spacecraft shown with asteroids Ceres (right) and Vesta (left). (William K. Hartmann/UCLA)

Artist concept of the Dawn spacecraft shown with asteroids Ceres (right) and Vesta (left). (William K. Hartmann/UCLA)

Comets, the icy relatives of asteroids, have been known to blast jets and plumes of gas and vapor, but the scientists were surprised to observe similar behavior on an object that resides in the asteroid belt.

Scientists will get a closer look at Ceres when NASA’s Dawn mission arrives for a scheduled visit during the spring of 2015. Dawn is on its way to Ceres after spending more than a year orbiting the large asteroid Vesta.

“We’ve got a spacecraft on the way to Ceres, so we don’t have to wait long before getting more context on this intriguing result, right from the source itself,” said Carol Raymond, NASA’s deputy principal investigator for Dawn. “Dawn will map the geology and chemistry of the surface in high-resolution, revealing the processes that drive the outgassing activity.”

Milky Way Might Have Formed From Inside-Out

Posted January 21st, 2014 at 9:28 pm (UTC+0)

This artist's concept illustrates the new view of the Milky Way. Scientists have discovered that the Milky Way's elegant spiral structure is dominated by just two arms wrapping off the ends of a central bar of stars. Previously, our galaxy was thought to possess four major arms. (Image: NASA)

Artist’s concept illustrates new view of the Milky Way  (NASA)

The Milky Way Galaxy may have formed from the inside-out, according to data from the Gaia-ESO Survey.

Using data gathered by the ESO’s 8-meter Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Chile’s Atacama desert, astronomers were able to make their findings by tracking and studying the amounts of elements, such as magnesium, within the chemical composition of stars and gases contained within the galaxy.

The astronomers made detailed observations of a number of different-aged stars, located in a variety of regions of the Milk Way to accurately determine their metallicity, which is the amount of chemical elements contained within a star other than the two basic chemicals—hydrogen and helium—that stars are made of.

Shortly after the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, the universe was made up only of those two basic elements (H & He), but over time, the cosmic mix included more and more metallic contaminants.  As a result, the older stars have fewer of these contaminants, or less metallicity, while newer stars have more of these elements in their mix.

“The different chemical elements of which stars—and we—are made, are created at different rates,” said Gerry Gilmore, lead investigator on the Gaia-ESO Project.”Some in massive stars which live fast and die young, and others in sun-like stars with more sedate multi-billion-year lifetimes.”

ESO's Very Large Telescope Array on Cerro Paranal Mountain (ESO)

ESO’s Very Large Telescope Array on Cerro Paranal Mountain (ESO)

Astronomers refer to stars with a mass of at least eight times that of the sun as massive stars. These massive stars tend to have relatively short lives which end in core-collapse supernovae.

This type of event is triggered when the nuclear fusion processes of the star (how a star produces energy) suddenly causes its core to collapse against its own gravity, which can cause it to explode and die.

This core-collapse supernova event can form a neutron star, a black hole, or even kick-start the formation of new stars.

The astronomers said that as the massive stars die, they produce large amounts of magnesium.

The team said older stars that do exist inside the Solar Circle—the orbit our sun makes around the center of the Milky Way—usually have higher levels of magnesium, which suggests that part of our galaxy contained more stars with a relatively shorter life span.

Stars outside of the Solar Circle, located within the outer regions of the galaxy, are younger and tend to have very low levels of magnesium.

The research team said its discovery illustrates the differences in the evolution of stars in our galaxy. The stars that took less time to form are closer to the core of the Milky Way, while the stars with a much longer, more involved formation process, reside closer to the edge of the galactic disk of the Milky Way.

(University of Cambridge)

(University of Cambridge)

“We have been able to shed new light on the timescale of chemical enrichment across the Milky Way disc, showing that outer regions of the disc take a much longer time to form,” said Maria Bergemann from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the study. “This supports theoretical models for the formation of disc galaxies in the context of Cold Dark Matter cosmology, which predict that galaxy discs grow inside-out.”

The astronomical team’s findings were recently published online in the astronomical database ‘Astro-ph’, and have also been submitted to the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics for possible publication.

Sleeping Comet Chaser to Get Wake-Up Call

Posted January 17th, 2014 at 8:26 pm (UTC+0)
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Artist view of the Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is attached and is shown in blue (© ESA/J. Huart)

Artist view of the Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is attached and is shown in blue (© ESA/J. Huart)

The European Space Agency’s comet chasing Rosetta spacecraft is about to wake up from a 31-month nap, which was induced to conserve power after the vehicle ventured too far from the sun.

While ESA officials are confident Rosetta will respond when they try to rouse it this Monday, Jan. 20, they also realize anything could happen since the spacecraft is now in deep space some 807 million kilometers from Earth.

For the last 10 years, Rosetta has been traveling through the solar system for a rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko or 67P/CG.

The Rosetta spacecraft and mission were designed to perform a detailed investigation of a comet.

Rosetta was put into hibernation mode in 2011 when its trajectory to the comet took it so far from the sun that it was unable to use solar arrays to gather the energy needed to power it.

Artist’s impression of Rosetta’s lander Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (© ESA/ATG medialab)

Artist’s impression of Rosetta’s lander Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (© ESA/ATG medialab)

After Rosetta was powered down, only its computer and several heaters were left running.

Also, to stabilize the spacecraft for its long trip to the comet, the ESA put it into a once-a-minute spin.

Now, 31 months after being put into hibernation, Rosetta’s trajectory has brought it back to where it’s closer to the sun and can gather enough solar energy to reach full power again.

After putting the spacecraft through a number of wake-up maneuvers, mission controllers at ESA’s European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, will transmit a signal to Rosetta to take it out of its stabilizing spin and orient it so that its solar arrays face the sun, allowing it to draw enough energy to power-up and continue its mission as planned.

ESA says the Rosetta mission will give scientists the opportunity to gain some insight into the creation of the solar system and its planets.

ESA Video:

“Comets are very interesting objects, said Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior scientific advisor for space science missions. “They are effectively time capsules; they’ve locked up material which is left over from the birth of our own solar system. So by going to a comet, examining it in detail, studying its materials, what it’s made of, we hope to learn a lot more about the origin of the solar system we live in today.”

By studying the water that is locked up in comet 67P/CG, Rosetta mission officials hope to learn more about where the Earth’s water came from.

Image of the asteroid Lutetia taken at Rosetta's closest approach.(© ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Image of the asteroid Lutetia taken at Rosetta’s closest approach.(© ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

McCaughrean says that since the Earth was too warm to hold much water after it was born, our ocean water had to have been delivered later. Scientists suspect this was accomplished following collisions with millions of comets.

Another reason to go to and study 67P/CG in great detail, according to McCaughrean, is that comets also contain lots of organic molecules, things which are the building blocks of more complex molecules like DNA.

He and other scientists believe that it’s quite possible that comets not only delivered our water, but also the ingredients for life on Earth.

McCaughrean thinks 67P/CG will be a great target for study because, unlike many comets, its surface hasn’t been heated by the sun many times.

When a comet gets heated by the sun, “it gets processed. It gets kind of different on the surface to the way it is underneath,” he said.  He and his colleagues think Rosetta’s target comet will contain plenty of the primitive materials that it collected as the solar system was being formed.

On its way to rendezvous with the comet, Rosetta has made three fly-bys of Earth and one of Mars, while also encountering asteroids Steins and Lutetia along the way.

Once Rosetta reaches its destination, which should be in August, it will spend time orbiting the comet to gather crucial data. Then, in November, it will deploy the Philae lander, a small spacecraft on board, that will land on the comet itself. The Philae will use its 10 specialized instruments to sample and analyze material from the comet’s surface and subsurface.

The Rosetta Stone which is on display at the British Museum (Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The Rosetta Stone which is on display at the British Museum (Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The Rosetta mission, which was green-lighted in 1993, is named after the famous Rosetta stone. Engraved on this important historic object is a decree issued by a group of ancient Egyptian priests around the year 196 BC.

The stone was inscribed with essentially the same text in three languages – ancient Egyptian Demotic, Greek and Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Scientists, with the knowledge of Demotic and Greek, were able to decipher the meaning of modern Hieroglyphs.

Some consider the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone as the pioneering effort in translating unknown languages. ESA scientists are hoping their Rosetta spacecraft, like the object it was named after, will help unlock the mysteries of how the solar system evolved.

Mark McCaughrean joins us on this week’s radio edition of “Science World” to talk about the Rosetta mission and Jan. 20 wake up call. Tune in (see right column for scheduled times) or check out the interview in the player below.

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Have Researchers Debunked Idea of “Sixth Sense” ?

Posted January 15th, 2014 at 9:12 pm (UTC+0)

Zener cards used in the early twentieth century for experimental research into ESP. (Wikimedia Commons)

Zener cards like those shown here were used in the early twentieth century for experimental research into ESP. (Wikimedia Commons)

There are people who claim to have a sixth sense or extrasensory perception (ESP), the ability to acquire or “see” information about the future through means other than normal human senses.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have looked into the matter and say their findings help debunk the belief that a sixth sense actually exists.

The Aussie researchers outlined their research and findings in a study published recently in  PLOS ONE. Their findings show that while people could sense when a change took place, without the benefit of the other senses, they could not specifically identify that change.

They found that a person might be able to pick up a change in a person’s appearance, but not, for example, be able to precisely pinpoint that the exact change in appearance was something such as getting a new hairstyle or wearing jewelry.

“There is a common belief that observers can experience changes directly with their mind, without needing to rely on the traditional physical senses such as vision, hearing, taste, smell and touch to identify it,” said Piers Howe from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences.

This demonstrates how the researchers tested their volunteer observers (Piers D.L.Howe/Margaret E. Webb/PLOS ONE)

This demonstrates how the researchers tested their volunteer observers (Piers D.L.Howe/Margaret E. Webb/PLOS ONE)

Howe said the research conducted by his team showed that while people could consistently sense changes that they could not see, their ability to do so had nothing to do with a sixth sense or extrasensory perception.”

To reach their findings, the researchers gathered volunteer observers who were shown pairs of color photos of the same female. In some of the photos, the woman’s appearance could be different, such as a new hairstyle, from the other in the pair.

Each of the photos was shown to the observer for about 1.5 seconds and then a 1 second pause before showing the next photo. After looking at the second photo, the researchers asked the observer whether or not a change had taken place between the first and second picture. Then they were asked to specifically identify that change in appearance from a list of nine different changes.

The researchers found that their volunteer observers were able to pick-up on a change in appearance even when they couldn’t pinpoint what that specific change was.

While they might notice one of the two photos had more of one color than the other, they weren’t able to translate that information into specifics such as the change in color was due to the woman wearing different clothing.

This resulted in the observer “feeling” or “sensing” that a change had occurred without being able to visually identify the change. Thus, the result that observers can reliably feel or sense when a change has occurred without being able to visually identify the change could be explained without invoking an extrasensory mechanism.

So what do you think? Do you agree with the researchers that a “sixth sense” does not actually exist? Or do you think ESP is a legitimate phenomenon?

Caffeine Might Improve Long-term Memory

Posted January 13th, 2014 at 4:41 pm (UTC+0)

A steaming hot cup of coffee provides drinkers with a quick dose of caffeine (Greenray studios/Alex Upshur via Wikimedia Commons)

A hot cup of coffee provides drinkers with a quick dose of caffeine. (Greenray studios/Alex Upshur via Wikimedia Commons)

Caffeine  not only gives us a daily jump start, but new research suggests it also can enhance long-term memory.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, nearly 90 percent of people worldwide consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine each day.  That’s equivalent to about one strong cup of coffee a day. Writing in “Nature Neuroscience”, Johns Hopkins University researchers say  their findings show caffeine boosts certain memories for up to 24 hours after being ingested.

“We’ve always known that caffeine has cognitive-enhancing effects, but its particular effects on strengthening memories and making them resistant to forgetting has never been examined in detail in humans,” said senior author of the paper Michael Yassa, formerly of Johns Hopkins and now the University of California, Irvine. “We report for the first time a specific effect of caffeine on reducing forgetting over 24 hours.”

Conducting a double-blind trial, the researchers worked with a test group of people who didn’t regularly consume caffeinated products. Five minutes after studying a series of images, the test subjects were given either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet.

To check the caffeine levels of their test subjects, the research team took saliva samples from them before they took their tablets and again one, three and 24 hours afterwards.

Both groups of test participants (those who took the placebo and those who took the caffeine tablet) were tested the following day to see if they recognized images they’d seen the previous day.

The test included showing the test subjects another series of images that included some new images, those that were shown the previous day, as well as other images that were similar, but not the same as those they had viewed earlier.

The researchers found that more members of the group who were given the caffeine tablets were able to correctly identify some of the new images as “similar” to previously viewed images rather than incorrectly identifying them as the same.

Video: Johns Hopkins University

Being able to recognize the difference between two similar but not exactly alike items is called pattern separation, which is something, according to the researchers, that reveals a greater level of memory retention.

Only a few studies on the effect of caffeine on long-term memory have been conducted previously, and those that had been done did not provide much detail, according to the researchers.  Those studies suggested caffeine had little or no effect on long-term memory retention.

The research team said its research was different from  prior studies because its test subjects took their caffeine tablets after looking at and trying to memorize the images they were shown.

“The next step for us is to figure out the brain mechanisms underlying this enhancement,” said Yassa. “We can use brain-imaging techniques to address these questions. We also know that caffeine is associated with healthy longevity and may have some protective effects from cognitive decline like Alzheimer’s disease. These are certainly important questions for the future.”

2014’s 1st Asteroid May Have Hit Earth

Posted January 3rd, 2014 at 7:42 pm (UTC+0)

This animated GIF shows Asteroid 2014 AA, discovered by the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey on Jan. 1, 2014, as it moved across the sky. Image credit: CSS/LPL/UA

This animated GIF shows Asteroid 2014 AA, discovered by the NASA-sponsored Catalina Sky Survey on Jan. 1, 2014, as it moved across the sky. (CSS/LPL/UA)

As Americans were ringing in 2014 early Wednesday morning, scientists caught sight of what appeared to be a very small asteroid – between 2 and 3 meters in size – on a potential impact trajectory with Earth.

The observation was made at the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, Arizona. The space rock, designated 2014 AA, may have been the first asteroid discovery of the New Year. If the space object was an asteroid, scientists, using the scant observational data that was available to them, suggest that it probably entered Earth’s atmosphere sometime between 2 p.m. EST, Wednesday, Jan. 1 and 9 a.m. EST Thursday, Jan. 2.

Three independent projections of the space object’s possible orbit were made by Bill Gray, of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Steve Chesley from NASA’s Near Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  The two scientists agree that 2014 AA probably pushed its way into Earth’s atmosphere.

Using data produced by weak signals from three infrasound detections, the crisscrossing of the white lines in this image indicates a possible impact point of asteroid 2014 AA (Peter Brown/University of Western Ontario)

Using data produced by weak signals from three infrasound detections, the crisscrossing of the white lines in this image indicates possible impact points of asteroid 2014 AA (Peter Brown/University of Western Ontario)

Because of the uncertainty of the object’s orbit, 2014 AA could have fallen anywhere along an arc that extends from Central America to East Africa.

The scientists think that the object may have impacted Earth at 9 PM EST on Jan. 1, just off the coast of West Africa.

NASA said that since another asteroid, 2008 TC3, which was also between 2 to 3 meters in size, completely broke up in October 2008 as it passed over northern Sudan, it’s doubtful that asteroid 2014 AA would have made it through its rough atmospheric entry intact.

Asteroid 2008 TC3, according to NASA, was the only other example of an incoming celestial object that was discovered just prior to hitting Earth.

The scientists are continuing their research into the fate of 2014 AA.  They will be analyzing data generated by a few weak signals collected from infrasound – low frequency – monitoring stations located along the predicted impact arc to see if they could be connected to the atmospheric entry of 2014 AA.

Want to Quit Smoking? Seek Professional Help

Posted December 20th, 2013 at 7:31 pm (UTC+0)

It can be tough for long time smokers to refuse a cigarette (U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: U.S. Air Force)

If your New Year’s resolution is to quit smoking, you might want to consider what scientists in England have learned.  According to their study published in  Addiction, smokers who want to kick the habit are better off seeking the help of a trained advisor, rather than doing it themselves.

The researchers found self-help aids such as nicotine patches, gum or other products, do not improve the chances of quitting smoking. They used data from the “Smoking Toolkit Study,” a large ongoing research project that’s been conducted since 2007. The UK project follows current smokers as well as those who recently quit smoking.

The researchers wanted to find out which smoking cessation methods were the most successful. So, they analyzed the responses to survey questions answered by more than 10,000 Britons who had tried to stop smoking over the prior year.

The results showed that smokers who use services provided by smoking cessation advisors, often offered by health care organizations, have the best chance of successfully kicking their smoking habit.

The study also points out that over-the-counter therapies, such as the nicotine patches and gum, alone might not be as beneficial as they may think.

Those who try to quit smoking using a combination of specialized behavioral support, along with anti-smoking medicine or nicotine replacement products, are three times more likely to be successful than those who try to stop smoking on their own.

Health experts say smoking can be hazardous to your health (CDC via Wikipedia Commons)

(Graphic: CDC via Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, the researchers found that smokers who only use over-the-counter smoking cessation aids, without the help of a trained advisors, have the same rate of success as those who didn’t use any of those quit-smoking products at all.

“When you think that stopping smoking saves six hours of life for every day of smoking avoided, investing an hour or two over a 6 week period to see…[a] stop smoking advisor seems like a good investment,” said Robert West from University College London, who led the team of researchers. “They can provide cheaper medicine than is available in shops and advise how to use it properly. It’s crazy that not all smokers who want to stop do it. As far as nicotine products bought from shops are concerned, there is an urgent need to understand what is going on because we know that if these products are used properly, they can be effective.”

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