In this week’s Sunday Science, lots of brains: Alzheimer’s, autism, choosing knowledge, and mind-body interfaces to control drones. Plus deadly heatwaves, marsupials, and more.

There’s been an increasing interest in the importance of the microbiome – all the microbes that live inside and on us – and its role in various aspects of human health. For example, having certain species of bacteria in your gut makes you more likely to become obese. Research has now shown a link between the health of the mother’s gut microbiome, inflammation, and the development of autism in the offspring. The work suggests that blocking the activity of an inflammatory molecule, IL17, or, less riskily, improving the maternal microbiome by e.g. probiotic supplementation, may be an effective intervention. Original paywalled (and technical) article here.

Improving the health of lymphatic vessels surrounding the brain may help treat Alzheimer’s, and even delay the signs of aging. It was only recently discovered (in 2015) that the brain even had these vessels around it, which help clear waste products. The latest research shows that if their function is impaired in mouse models of Alzheimer’s, it worsens the symptoms. Similarly, if their function is improved in healthy mice, it helps reduce some of the negative signs of brain aging. Original research article here (paywalled).

An interesting neuroscience paper on the value humans place on knowledge, and how it activates the reward system in the brain. It’s frequently observed that whilst people in general are curious and seek out information, often they inexplicably reject sources of valuable knowledge, such as medical screenings and financial advice. The paper (bit technical, but the abstract at least is accessible) finds that the mesolimbic reward circuitry reacts selectively to different knowledge opportunities: favourably towards ones that promise good outcomes, but unfavourably towards ones that promise bad outcomes. Which is why maybe we don’t want that medical test in case it tells us something we don’t want to hear.

Europe’s scorching heatwave has led to some argument as to how much (if any) can be attributed to climate change, and how reliable such predictions are. Well, they’re now pretty reliable actually. Link is to a short opinion piece, with links to more detailed research within. Oh, and to answer my own question, climate change made this heatwave at least twice as likely to happen. Bad news for the climate, agriculture, and people (heatwaves cause excess deaths). It’s also been shown that, under the business-as-usual scenario of climate change, a vast area of China, the North China plain (inhabited by 400 million people and a huge agricultural area), will suffer unsurvivable heatwaves within around 50 years time. Accessible news article here.

Some good environmental news now: the introduction of the 5p charge for plastic bags in the UK has seen an 86% reduction in their use in the “big seven” supermarkets. Simple measures like this work. 

I must admit the title of this paper intrigued me straightaway: “Data-driven body-machine interface for the accurate control of drones.” Oooh, so science fictiony! Instead of using a joystick, participants wore body sensors which interpreted their movement as they learned to control first a virtual, then a real quadcopter drone. This makes for much more intuitive and easily operated human-controlled drones. Watch some of the movies, they’re quite fun.

The Northern quoll (featured image) is one of Australia’s most endangered marsupials, having suffered catastrophic declines recently. In particular, it’s suffered from eating the invasive – and poisonous – cane toad. Some quoll populations have learnt to avoid the toxic toad however, and now researchers are engaged in a bold genetic experiment to breed this trait into other populations, which seems to be working. This suggests the trait is a genetic one, and not a learnt behaviour taught from the mother to the offspring, and the approach could be applied to other species.

And finally: a rather epic timelpase video. The NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile shows stars orbiting the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of the Milky Way over a period of nearly 20 years. Mind-blowing.


Image credit
Nprthern quoll. Credit: Jonathan Webb via Nature.

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