In this week’s Sunday Science, tattoo art meets wearable tech, a machine that can read your thoughts, new brain cells, frogs and climate change weakening ocean currents…

Only a few weeks ago I reported on a study that had shown that humans did not, after all, generate new neurons in a region of their brain called the hippocampus. Well, as is the way with science, this hotly contested issue has now swung back the other way with a report that oh yes we do. (Link is to the paper: There is a news report here). Why do these two studies disagree? Scientists are supposed to use evidence, right? Well, the problem with looking at human brains is that, if you’re going to be examining different cell types, you can’t exactly start scooping them out of living people. So you have to use sections of brains from autopsies – but those brains aren’t living and dividing new cells anymore. So you have to use antibodies linked with dyes to various proteins that you know are switched on in progenitor cells as opposed to new neurons – but then of course, you have to good antibodies and staining methodology, there has to be agreement on what those progenitor markers are – which is also probably based on dead tissue, etc. It gets difficult rapidly. It may be the case that new neurons being born in adults is rare – and the previous study simply did not have enough tissue to see it. Time, and more studies, will tell.

Wearable tech meets tattoo art. And it’s rather lovely. I can see us walking around now with these pretty little gadgets on our arms, taking the place of smartwatches, medical monitors and the like, looking very science fictiony. Let’s try and sort out the data protection laws in advance this time though…

On a similar scifi skin theme, researchers have developed a squid-skin-inspired material that can be rendered invisible to infrared light.

Also in the sci-fi style tech section, a new device can, rather incredibly, read your verbalised thoughts and transcribe them to words. Incredibly useful for the paralysed and authors, I would think. Slightly freaky though.

Do you, like me, have a bit of a sweet tooth? i.e. a craving for sugary foods? It’s been linked to a gene variant of FGF21. Surprisingly, the same researchers who made that connection have now discovered that people with this variant are actually pre-disposed to have less body fat. 

In a vision from The Day After Tomorrownew research suggests that the AMOC (Atlantic Meriodional Overturning Circulation), the current that brings warm water to the North Atlantic and cooler water south, is weaker than at any point in the past 1600 years, a significantly worse situation than thought (this is far back as has been measured). Increasing freshwater and rising ocean temperatures as a consequence of climate change are to blame. This made the mainstream news, I’m pleased to say, though the Nature article I’ve linked to is more thorough and also includes links to the original research papers.

Amphibian populations have generally been declining, in many cases quite catastrophically, partly due to environmental damage and climate change, but also because of the spread of a virulent fungal pathogen. Some good news now in that some South American frog populations are recovering, with some frogs showing skin secretions that are more resistant to fungal infection. Those skin secretions may also provide useful anti-microbials for human diseases.


Inspired by the trend of metallic tattoo art, the researchers behind DuoSkin designed a process for making gold-leaf temporary tattoos that can function like a track pad, communicate information wirelessly, or change color with body temperature. Image by Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab.

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