Category Archives: Science Communication

Can’t decide? Roll a die

chess

Image source: Flickr commons; Uploader: neni d

Do you ever feel as though despite your experiences, you repeatedly make the same mistake? Most of the time, we center our decisions on logic and prior experience. But…  can we ever get the best outcome by simply making a random choice and ignoring what we already know?

(Click here for an awesome article about how our brain helps our reasoning and decision-making!)

Rats were monitored by a computer that tried to predict the rat’s decisions. Image Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)

In a study recently published in Cell, scientists from Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) found that when faced with a challenging “opponent”, rats stopped using strategy to make decisions and made decisions randomly instead. In the experiment, rats were presented with two holes in a wall, one of which contained a sugary reward. Meanwhile, the rats were monitored by a computer-simulated opponent, which recorded the rats’ past choices so as to predict its future choices. To get the sugar, the rats had to choose the hole that was not predicted by the opponent. When faced with opponents that made weak predictions, the rats selected holes using strategy. However, when the computers used complex algorithms to predict the rats’ choices, the rats instead selected holes at random!

Are there advantages for animals to change behaviour from using logic to choosing randomly? Firstly, when animals encounter situations that are unpredictable in the wild, such as predators or prey that move erratically, it could be beneficial to move randomly to evade predation or capture prey. Moreover, random behaviour might be useful in the exploration of new environments. For example, a rat might find food in a place that it would not explore if it were making decisions based on past experience gained in a different environment.

The scientists from HHMI discovered that when the rats faced hard-to-beat opponents, the amount of a stress hormone (norepinephrine) increased in the rat’s brain. Furthermore, the rats continued to act randomly even after the opponent started to make weak predictions again! To free the rats from this state, the scientists suppressed the release of the stress hormone, causing rats to return to their strategic decision-making.

Further research into the role of hormones in the brain on decision-making may lead to novel treatments foe mental conditions. Image source: Flickr commons; Uploader: European Space Agency

This study may be a step in the right direction of developing a treatment for “learned helplessness” in people. Learned helplessness is a mental condition in which an individual becomes unwilling to avoid painful situations because they believe that they cannot control the outcome. The actions of people suffering from this disorder resemble that of the rats stuck in “random mode”, as their decision-making is impaired. Perhaps a treatment can be found in the near future for learned helplessness and other conditions, such as depression, with further research investigating the brain’s function in decision-making.

In the video below, uploaded to YouTube by LennyBound, an Oxford math professor participates in an experiment that aims to explain the brain’s role in decision-making:

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-Imran Mitha

Your Eyes Can Taste Everything for You

To begin, take a look at the two images below:

Blue Penne

Blue Penne. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, user Ronan.

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Penne. Source: Flickr Creative Commons, user Jennifer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which one looks more appetizing? Which one will you reach for when you are hungry? I would –without a doubt– choose the one on the bottom. Why? Because blue penne is not visually appealing to me, and even if it tasted just as good as the normal one, I would probably feel gross due to the perception that I consumed something blue.

 Now, some of you may think that this is just a personal opinion however, the research done by Jeannine F. Delwiche state that “visual cues… modify the way taste, odour, and flavour are perceived”. She explains her hypothesis through the explanation of the emergent phenomenon. The emergent phenomenon is a phenomenon of how one’s understanding of a whole does not necessarily reflect the physical reality of its parts. Delwiche provides three examples, which are the following:

  • Rabbit-Duck Illusion: This is the ambiguous image where both a rabbit or a duck can be seen, depending on one’s interpretation

    Kaninchen_und_Ente

    Rabbit-Duck Illusion. Source: Wikipedia

  • Müller-Lyer illusion: This is the optical illusion where one arrow seems to be longer than the other, when in fact, they are the same length
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    Müller-Lyer illusion. Source: Wikipedia

     

  • Kanizsa Triangle: Shows the visual illusion, where the top triangle seems to be brighter than the bottom. This illustrates that perception does not always accurately represent physical reality
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    Kanizsa Traingle. Source: Wikipedia

     

From these three examples, Delwiche explains that sensory input from the visual system can alter taste and flavour of foods and drinks.

A relatively famous experiment was done by Stefan Gates and Alice Pegg where white wine was coloured using red food colouring to make the physical appearance like a red wine. This so-called “red wine” was served in a wine club, where tasters were asked to describe the wine. Surprisingly, the wine drinkers described the taste/flavour in terms that reference and describe a red wine. From this, we can see that the red colour of the wine caused the alteration of the flavour perception. A video showing the experiment can be accessed through BBC News Magazine, or from youtube like the one below:

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Credit goes to user Spab Fi

The next time you encounter a piece of food that seems unappetizing for some reason, take a minute to process the visual image of the food and ask yourself: Is this food actually bad or is it just my eyes tasting it through visual perception?

-Lilly Inoue

 

 

 

 

 

 

sick? eat s###!

Recently, Scientists and Researching physician have made poop pills a viable therapy against C. Difficile infections.

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. - NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. – NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Why would anyone in their right mind want to ingest pills filled with poop? according to the lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann, it’s a big step from the previous methods of enemas and nose drip-tubes, which were accident-prone, especially “if people gagged and vomited, they could inhale fecal matter. “

Yikes. Why are people taking such grotesque (if not extreme) methods for treatment? what exactly is a C. difficile infection, and why is it so difficult to treat?

Clostridium difficile  is a type of bacteria that is known to cause “opportunistic infections”, or infections when the host is able to be infected easily, usually with the host being in a weakened/compromised state; in this case, most of the cases of C. difficile infections are caused by the lack of other, more benign bacteria colonizing the intestines, usually due to antibiotic treatment. This is akin to introducing wolf packs onto a sheep farm, where there are no competitors/predators for the wolves. As a result, the wolves prosper, at great cost to the sheep and the sheep farmer – a fitting metaphor for both the person infected by C. difficile , and the physician treating it, since C. difficile infections are especially antibiotic-resistant, and are prone to recurrent (i.e: multiple and returning) infections.

How C.difficile spreads- Wikipedia/CDC

The purpose of undertaking fecal transplants is to re-populate the patient’s colon and intestines with benign/helpful bacteria, thereby out-competing the harmful C.difficile. In an extension to the wolves/farmers metaphor, this would be akin to introducing more farm workers, scaring away the wolf pack and ensuring the prosperity of the farm.

Of course, the draw-back to this form of therapy is the “ick-factor”, effective though it may be.  This is why scientists have been working on a synthetic version of the bacteria flora populating our gut- dubbed appropriately, “rePOOPulate”. Research is still on-going  in the field of bacteria flora colonizing our gut; hopefully, one day someone can invent a form of therapy with all of the benefits of faecal transplants, and none of the “ick-factor”.

YouTube Preview Image  Source:Mary Greely Medical Centre, Via YouTube

– James L.

Healthy Living

Often when students are busy with school and work, they forget to live healthy. With less time to cook and exercise, students often resort to unhealthy foods and a sedentary lifestyle. This can lead to depression or poor performance in school. It is important to adapt to a healthy lifestyle in order to improve and enhance our ability to do well in school.

Basketball

Healthy activities such basketball burn fat and increase the rate of metabolism. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In order to have good health, it is vital to engage in physical activity in our everyday life. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that adults engage in at least 2.5 hours of exercise per week. The performed exercise should be of moderate or rigorous level. Youth and children should exercise for 60 minutes per day. Staying healthy means less time in front of the TV and computer and more time doing healthy activities such as walking or going to the recreational center to play sports such as basketball and hockey. In the summer, one can spend more time gardening, doing yard work, going for a walk or hike. One can attach a pedometer to him or her self and track the number of steps walked each day and try to increase the number of steps taken each day. Healthy activity reduces the chances of getting diseases and gives one a healthy body weight.

It is essential to eat the right amounts and types of food each day. For adults between 19 to 50 years of age, Health Canada roughly recommends eight servings of vegetables and fruits, seven servings of grains, two servings of milk and alternatives and two to three servings of protein per day. Most of our calories should come from fruits and vegetables as well as carbohydrates.

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Green tea is beneficial as it improves fat burning and improves physical performance. Source: Wikimedia Commons

We should limit foods and beverages high in calories, fat, sugar and salts. Cakes, pastries, soft drinks, alcohol and ice cream should be avoided. It is recommended to replace cakes and pastries with yogurt or baked apple with cinnamon.  It is suggested to drink herbal tea instead of Indian Chai and regular coffee because herbal tea is low in calories and it cleans the arteries. One should replace unhealthy drinks such as soda with water and a wedge of lemon.

It is suggested to drink three liters (12 cups) of water for men 19 years and over each day and 2.2 liters (9 cups) of water for women over the age of 19 each day. Fluids help with digestion and carrying nutrients around the body. Moreover, fluids cushion joints and organs and get rid of wastes and toxins in the body. If we adapt our lifestyles and make healthier choices, we will increase our life span and have better mood and more energy.

Naqsh Fatima Bhangu

Natural sleeping pills

Everyone experiences occasional sleeping problem.

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Sleep disorder Source: Flickr commons

This rate is especially high among college students. A study showed that there are about 81% of students who experienced insomnia. It is obvious school work loads and social events affect our sleeping schedule.

Lack of sleep can cause many health issues both physical and mental, and obesity which is something you don’t want to have while attending school.

Each student has their own method of getting a good night sleep, some of the popular methods are: sleeping pills, alcohol, marijuana, and food.

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Example of solution to sleeping disorder (Alcohol, cigarette, and marijuana) Source: My home

However, these methods have their own side effects which are why it is not a good solution to the sleeping problem.

But not to worry, there is plethora of other healthy alternative solutions to fix your insomnia.

  1. Lettuce
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Lettuce Source: Flickr Commons

Lettuce has been used for its hypnotic properties back in ancient Egypt. Even now, people use lettuce for its sedative substance in the pharmacological fields.

For instance, there is a study done regarding the soft gelatin capsule containing purified lettuce oil, which is marketed in Egypt. The lettuce oil capsule contains oleic acid, stearic acid, palmitic acid, myristic acid, cispalmitoleic, and other small amount of chemicals. To simplify, it contains the basic chemicals for milky white plastic which has a calming and sedation effect on consumers. In conclusion, the study found that lettuce oil was found to be useful sleeping aid and may be used in a hazard-free line of treatment.

  1. Almond
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Almond Source:Flickr Commons

Almond is the seed of a species of tree native to Asia. We can easily find them in a store, packed in a small plastic bag.

This easily obtainable food is full of protein and magnesium. Protein helps us relax while sleeping due to its nature to fight acid reflux that causes heartburn during night. Magnesium promotes sleep and muscle relaxation that aids us to stay in bed at night.

Other than lettuce and almond, there are many other options such as; honey, walnut, cheese, and milk. All these “healthy” choices of food give us the same or better effect of possibly hazardous sleeping pills.

Next time when you can’t sleep, try this!

By Jeamin Yoon

The bugs in your guts are making you fat.

Generally when we think “bacteria” and “guts”, we think of nasty things like food poisoning or the stomach flu. But in reality, there are large amount of bacteria living in our lower digestive system – what scientists call the Gut Microflora. In fact, some recent research has shown that the bacteria living in our guts aren’t simply enjoying a tenant-landlord relationship; in fact, they may actively contribute to our overall health. A good example of this is the much-hyped “probiotics” recently being promoted as the new “superfood” essential to successful diets. As Yogurt companies have been advertising left and right,   “an exclusive probiotic culture … has been shown to survive passage through the digestive tract in sufficient amounts for Activia to help regulate the digestive system”. But is there any truth to this?

Some research has indicated that certain species of bacteria may contribute to the overall efficiency of energy extraction and affect overall levels of host obesity;  and in fact, studies in mice have shown that mice with differing levels of obesity has different compositions in their gut microflora, showing quite the correlation between bacterial colonies in the gut and obesity. This begs the question, Would changing the bacteria help make you skinnier?

 Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6. "How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin"

Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6.
“How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To make a long and complicated answer short, We don’t know.  Though there has been trials done confirming the short-term effects on things related to obesity, so far no study has proven effective, as the gut microflora is a complicated subject with many facets to watch.  That being said, There are current studies in the works, so keep an (critical) eye on your news feed, and feel free to eat all the yogurt you’d like.

– James L.