Lots of interesting stuff in this week’s Sunday Science, with syncing brains, false news, pets and depression, Jovian cyclones, predicted futures for the oceans, and more besides.

It’s said that a lie can spread around the world before the truth has put its boots on…well, now it’s been proven, in a manner of speaking. A study of “rumour cascades” on Twitter (126,000 of them) demonstrated that not only did falsehoods reach more people, they spread faster. The researcher’s suggest the reason false news spreads so well is the novelty factor, and have some interesting insights into the emotional responses provoked by both the true and false news stories. Clearly those paying for disinformation spread are getting their money’s worth, which is worrying, because there’s already suggestive evidence that strategy was used to influence the 2016 EU referendum in the UK and the US presidential election. However, apparently robots spread false and true news stories equally – it’s humans that are more likely to perpetuate falsehoods, which is fascinating, and has important implications for how we counteract deliberate and accidental disinformation.

Pet ownership is associated with a higher risk of having had depression. Note though that this says nothing as to the directionality of this relationship –  whilst it could imply that pets make you depressed, it is quite possible (and, commonsense would suggest, more probable) that people who have suffered depression are more likely to get pets to aid their wellbeing. News blog on it here.

Can we really grow new neurons in adulthood? The received wisdom was that the human brain, once it finished developing, couldn’t grow neurons to replace those that died. Then some studies of human brain tissue seemed to suggest that yes, we could, at least in the hippocampus. However, now a new study using improved labelling techniques has blown a hole in that line of argument, not finding any sign of new cells being made past adolescence. (Link is to a more accessible News & Views article; link to original paper referenced there). More work to be done, but in the meantime, I’ll just assume my brain is steadily deteriorating…


I’m not the only one intrigued by the links between science and science fiction. Ocean researchers have decided to explore this idea, and that the idea of creating narratives – of storytelling itself – can help researchers come up with future predictions that explore evidence-based future scenarios for our oceans, and how humans cope with change. They’ve come up with four narratives built on the following:

  • Applies the method of science fiction prototyping to the future of fisheries.
  • Presents four ‘radical’ and compelling narrative scenarios.
  • Each scenario is supported by a strong scientific evidence base.
  • The scenarios account for complexity and non-linear change.
  • Scenarios reflect interaction of ecological, technological & socio-economic change

Their intriguing website, with the stories and lovely artwork by Simon Stålenhag is here, and the actually published paper (yes, it’s science fiction that’s real science!) is here.

An evidence-based approach to sustainability has taken data from 21 million (yes, really) smallholder farmers in China to give real improvements in production with reduced fertiliser and pesticide use. Link is to editorial; paper cited within.

There has been an alarmingly high number of Lassa fever cases in Nigeria so far this year – more were recorded in January 2018 alone than in any previous year. It’s a haemorrhagic virus with a 20-30% mortality rate, and, like many of these viruses, is poorly understood; hard to diagnose, with no vaccine and no real effective cure. The outbreak is very concerning, as Nigeria’s limited and overstretched healthcare system is struggling to cope (not helped by disruption caused by Boko Haram terrorism, I’m sure), and there’s a risk of a serious epidemic like the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014.

An anti-cancer drug can also restore the “social deficits” in a mouse model of autism. It’s a clever idea: many many genes are linked to autism, so finding one drug that will have any significant effect is difficult. This one however affects a chromatin remodelling factor – something that alters the access of the cellular machinery to genes, thus affecting the activity of potentially 1000s of genes. In this case, it improved neuronal communication. Whether this would extrapolate to humans is still a big if. I have to question too whether it would be ethical to do so – many neurodiverse people may not want such a treatment, although I can understand that where problems are severe and distressing for the individual, this may be of some benefit. Original research paper here, though it is paywalled.

More cheerfully and with less moral ambiguity, holding hands with your romantic partner can help ease any pain that you’re feeling, and it turns out it’s partly because your brains are syncing with each other. So sweet! Highly technical and paywalled research article here. 

And finally, a series of papers in Nature detail NASA’s Juno probe’s latest findings about Jupiter. The atmospheric winds of the gas-giant planet run deep into its atmosphere and last longer than similar atmospheric processes (such as the jet stream) found on Earth. Fascinatingly, the massive cyclones that surround Jupiter’s north and south poles (this week’s featured image) are enduring atmospheric features and unique in the solar system. You can find the links to these and some nice information from NASA here.

Featured image

This composite computer generated image, derived from data collected by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, shows the central cyclone at the planet’s north pole and the eight cyclones that encircle it.

Credit: Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

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