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Rebuilding Memories Makes Them Stick


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Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 3

Even after his death, the famous amnesic H. M. is revolutionizing our understanding of how memory works and how we maintain it as we age

I remember meeting H.M. in the spring of 1967, when he was perhaps 40 years old and I was 16 years his junior. My mentor, Hans-Lucas Teuber, brought him to my tiny office across from the psychology department library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I recall H.M.’s thin, smiling, rather handsome face as he squeezed into the doorway with Teuber, who introduced us as “Don” and “Henry,” as if we might become buddies. I think I called Henry “sir” as we shook hands because he was already a minor M.I.T. celebrity. Teuber assured Henry that he would enjoy taking part in my experiment on sentence comprehension, something he was good at, and excused himself.

As we climbed the stairs to the testing room, it never crossed my mind that this quiet man would become a major focus of my research during the next half a century. I unlocked the door and seated Henry at a wooden desk facing mine, sunlight streaming into the room from large windows to my right. In front of me I had two stopwatches and a stack of 32 short sentences typed onto three-by-five index cards. I started a tape recorder and began what I thought would be a fairly routine experiment.

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The Science of Memory


See Inside
Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 3

Managing editor Sandra Upson introduces the May/June 2014 issue of Scientific American MIND

May 1, 2014
|By Sandra Upson

|

When I was eight years old, my family moved out of our 100-year-old house in the Netherlands. Its ivy-covered brick walls, dark green door and matching window shutters remain vivid to me. I still keep a framed photo of my golden retriever and me scampering down the pebble driveway, which led past rhododendrons to a separate garage. Behind it rose a majestic dune.

The passing of decades inevitably weakens the brain connections that hold such slices of time in place. Yet as I learned in this issue’s special report, “How We Remember,” revisiting one’s recollections helps the brain rebuild aging neural links. In “The Engine of Memory,” psychologist Donald G. MacKay describes his discovery of several ways the mind repairs and strengthens reminiscences.

Also in the report, cognitive scientist Felipe De Brigard delves into the mystery of the hippocampus, a brain region viewed as the seat of memory. People with damage to this area develop amnesia—but also suffer deficits of imagination, sight and other core mental functions. Connecting with our past makes it easier to envision the future, it seems. See “The Anatomy of Amnesia.”

Memory is not the only faculty vulnerable to the ravages of time and disease. New hope for treating disorders in which brain cells perish, such as Parkinson’s, is now emerging in the form of stem cell therapies. Journalist Lydia Denworth reports on stunning progress in cultivating replacement neurons. The advances she describes in “The Regenerating Brain” demanded many years of painstaking research—a reminder that the passage of time also brings us breakthroughs that improve human lives.

Last October, I paid a brief visit to the house in the Netherlands, my first trip back in decades. I recognized the facade, but gone were the green shutters and the ivy, as well as the detached garage. The gardens had been transformed. The building was a stranger now, not a friend. Yet it dawned on me that my beloved childhood home still stood safely in my memories. By carrying the past forward with us, our present and future become all the richer.

Gardening Tips

National award for students dedicated to making the world a better place



17 April 2014

Exceptional entrepreneurs from the University of Sheffield who are dedicated to making the world a better place have been crowned Enactus UK Champions after helping more than 150 disadvantaged people transform their lives.

Homemade projectGlobal business leaders awarded Enactus Sheffield with the prestigious prize for their remarkable projects which have touched the lives of people not only in South Yorkshire but across the world.

The dedicated team, which is made up of 150 talented students, triumphed over 35 University teams from all over the UK at the 2014 Enactus UK National competition which took place in London earlier this week.

As UK National Champions the Sheffield team will go on to compete against 35 other countries at the Enactus World Cup 2014 in Bejing later this year.

Sheffield Enactus is a social enterprise company based at the University of Sheffield which through both social and commercial projects aims to harness students’ entrepreneurial spirit, to make a difference through innovative projects such as Homemade.

The pioneering Homemade venture saw students working with homeless people to create a jam-making business, called Bevin’s Finest Preserve, enabling people living on the streets to harness the skills necessary to move to full-time employment and a stable home.

Accounting and Finance Management student Caroline Turner, 19, is the Managing Director of Enactus Sheffield. “I still cannot believe that we have won this tremendous award,” she said.

“I saw the national competition as a brilliant way for the team to get experience and learn from innovative projects which other universities have put together – we never imagined that we would win the title and be chosen to represent the whole of Great Britain at the Enactus World Cup in Bejing.

“I am so incredibly proud and the members of Enactus are the most dedicated, driven, passionate and wonderfully talented people I have ever met. Without Enactus I wouldn’t be the person I am today – I no longer sit and procrastinate I know that with the help of others you can achieve amazing things every single day.”

Enactus Sheffield is one of the biggest groups in the UK and has empowered more than 155 individuals with volunteers dedicating more than 16,400 hours to 17 separate projects.
“I signed up to Enactus in Freshers Week,” said Caroline.

Helping to change lives“I knew that a degree wasn’t going to be enough for me and when I heard about the team I know this was something I had to be involved in. Obviously it is extremely rewarding to see how our work can directly impact on the lives of others but in terms of personal development Enactus has been invaluable.

“When I signed up the thought of giving a talk to 20 people was terrifying and now I find presenting to 20,000 people an exciting challenge. I have been given so many amazing opportunities through Sheffield Enactus and I would truly recommended it to any student out there who just wants to make a difference – a few hours of your time can transform someone’s life forever. “

Enactus Sheffield International Director and International Development Masters student, Bethan Rimmington, 23, said: “Our ethos is to help meet each individual’s needs and we stick to this model whatever the project.
“The Hope project which helps victims of human trafficking is something which I feel exceptionally privileged to have been involved in.

“To see the transformation in people from being so vulnerable and nervous that they cannot even look you in the eye when they are speaking to you – to becoming confident, strong and successful women is absolutely amazing.

“It is an incredible experience to work with all of our beneficiaries and the culture that we have within the team is fantastic. The skills I have developed through Enactus are things which will help my in all aspects of my everyday life.”

The team have already begun working incredibly hard in preparation of the Enactus World Cup. They would welcome support from any staff, students or local business leaders who can help them bring the World Cup back to Sheffield.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, Professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education at the University of Sheffield said: “There are students who inspire me every day; their passion, determination and desire to change the world is breath taking. The Sheffield Enactus team are without a doubt at the top of this group of transformational students.

“Winning the Enactus UK Nationals is the cherry on top of the cake. However, the most important achievement of our team is the change they bring to the world.”

She added: “We are incredibly proud of each one of them and of previous members. They represent all we stand for at the University of Sheffield.”

For more information about Sheffield Enactus visit http://www.enactussheffield.org/index.html or email Caroline Turner on managing.director@sheffieldsife.org

Additional information

Enactus
Founded in 1975, Enactus is an international community of student, academic and business leaders committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world.
Enactus UK was founded in 2001 and now operates in 54 universities, with more than 3000 active students. For more information about Enactus, please visit: www.enactus.org and www.enactusuk.org
Last year, 3000 Enactus students from across the UK volunteered more than 187,000 hours to create and implement some 250 projects that improved the lives of 4800 people.

Enactus projects use innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to tackle a wide range of social needs including: empowering diverse beneficiaries such as the unemployed, homeless, struggling businesses, immigrants and ex-offenders. They also harness the expertise of engineering students to tackle issues such as sanitation, irrigation and disease oversees. These experiences not only transform lives, but give students the opportunity to step out of the classroom and develop skills firsthand and the perspective that is essential to leadership in an ever-more complicated and challenging world.
For project examples, please visit: www.enactusuk.org/what-we-do/project-stories
In the UK, Enactus actively engages business and academic volunteers [over 470 business, 90 university and 50 alumni volunteers in 2013] who provide know-how in a framework that encourages the students to be innovative, creative, and to take advantage of the unique resources and opportunities at their university.

University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

Sheffield

When It Comes to Conservation, Tropical Grasslands Have an Identity Problem [Slide Show]

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Although they cover a fifth of Earth’s landmass, tropical grassy ecosystems are routinely misidentified and mismanaged

– Read more on ScientificAmerican.com

Gardening Tips

Costs of Climate Change May Prove High for Future

Our descendants will pay a higher price for greenhouse gas build-up as real costs are updated over time

Apr 16, 2014
|By Tim Radford and The Daily Climate

|

LONDON – Economists and scientists may have seriously underestimated the “social cost” of carbon emissions to future generations, according to a warning in the journal Nature.

Social cost is a calculation in US dollars of the future damage that might be done by the emission of one metric ton of carbon dioxide as greenhouse gas levels soar and climates change, sea levels rise and temperature records are broken in future decades.

How much would society save if it didn’t emit that ton of carbon dioxide? One recent federal estimate is $37. Such a measure helps civil servants, businessmen and ministers to calculate the impact of steps that might be taken.

Needs improvement
On the other hand, says Richard Revesz of New York University School of Law and a research team consisting of U.S. and Swedish colleagues, assumptions of cost per ton – and these range from $12 to $64 according to various calculations – are based on models that need to be improved and extended. 

The cost of climate change could be higher, for four reasons:

  • The impact of historic temperature variation suggests societies and economies may be more vulnerable than the models predict, and in this case weather variability is more important than average weather – because crop yields are vulnerable to extremes of temperature.
  • Then the models omit the damage to productivity, and to the value of capital stock, because of lower growth rates: as these lower growth rates compound each other, human welfare will begin to decline. And that’s without factoring in climate-induced wars, coups or societal collapse.
  • Third, the models assume that the value people attach to ecosystems (and water is an ecosystem service) remains constant. But, they point out, as commodities become scarce, value increases, so the costs of ecosystem damage will rise faster than models predict.
  • Finally, the models assume that a constant discount rate can translate future harms into today’s dollars. But discount rates of the future may not be constant.

“What now?” they ask. “Modelers, scientists and environmental economists must continue to step outside their silos and work together to identify research gaps and modeling limitations.”

They hint at an even deeper problem: the basis of the social harm costs dates from calculations more than 20 years old, and is predicated on an average global warming of less than 3 degrees Celsius. Yet without mitigation, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a warming of 4°C by the end of the century.

“If warming continues unchecked into the 22nd century, it could render parts of the planet effectively uninhabitable during the hottest days of summer, with consequences that would be challenging to monetize,” they write.

Other misses
Economic harm may not be the only thing underestimated. Michael Mann, a meteorologist at Penn State University thinks the so-called “slowdown” in global warming during this decade could be because scientists underestimated the impact of a meteorological monster called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO – an oceanographic cycle of warming and cooling that delivers natural change in northern hemisphere weather patterns.

A misreading of this cycle, probably because scientists have not known about it for long, could account for this apparent slowdown, he reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “Some researchers in the past attributed a portion of Northern Hemispheric warming to a warm phase of the AMO,” Mann said.

“The true AMO signal, instead, appears likely to have been in a cooling phase in recent decades, offsetting some of the anthropogenic warming temporarily.” And when the rate of warming rises again, there’s yet more evidence of possible acceleration, according to new research.

More methane
The thawing of the Arctic sea ice is also accompanied by a softening and warming of the Arctic permafrost, and changes in the chemistry of the preserved peat, that could release ever larger amounts of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, present in smaller quantities than carbon dioxide, but 34 times more potent as a warming agent over 100 years.

If the permafrost melts entirely, that would put five times the present levels of carbon into the atmosphere, US researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The world is getting warmer, and the additional release of gas would only add to our problems,” said Jeff Chanton of Florida State University, a co-author.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.
 

Gardening Tips

Research sheds new light on impact of diabetes on the brain



17 April 2014

  • Diabetic nerve damage causes more harm in the brain than previously thought
  • One in three diabetes patients suffer from diabetic neuropathy
  • Break through could lead to better treatments for sufferers in the future

Researchers from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust have discovered diabetic nerve damage causes more harm in the brain than previously thought, shedding new light on the disease.

The new findings published in the Diabetes Care journal reveal the extent of damage patients suffering with the disease can endure in areas of the brain called ‘grey matter’ – a key component of the central nervous system which is involved in touch and pain sensory perception.

Brain scanDuring the study, which involved patients with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, researchers used recent advances in ground breaking brain imaging and analyses methods to take detailed nerve assessments of the brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques.

This revealed that the volume of certain brain regions in people with diabetic neuropathy was significantly lower compared to those without the disease. Previous studies have shown that the impact of the disease on the brain is limited and isolated to outside areas of the brain considered to be peripheral to core functions in the body.

The breakthrough could pave the way for better assessment and monitoring of the disease, which affects around a third of people with diabetes. This, in turn, could lead to better treatments for sufferers in the future.
Diabetes patient Tracey Smythe, 45, of Parson Cross, Sheffield, admits she had little understanding of diabetic neuropathy – which affects up to a third of patients suffering with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes – when she was first diagnosed with the illness five years ago.

Now she finds “living with the disease hard” and crippling pains from the illness stop her from doing the simplest things – including walking her two dogs, going to the supermarket alone and wearing clothes with zips and buttons.

“It affects all aspects of my life. I get shooting pains that take me off my feet. One time the pain lasted four and a half hours. I couldn’t get up the stairs without using my arms to pull me up. I was in on my own, and I felt frightened and vulnerable. “

She added: “Even walking my two dogs is impossible as the pain increases when I’m walking. All the time I’m taking risk assessments on what I can and can’t do. If I’m making a cup of tea I need to ask myself if I’m going to be alright.

“My hands get swollen and numb and I’m constantly getting pins and needles. My husband has to be there when I’m cooking, and I can’t even bake a cake without him helping do the mix. Even the weather affects me, and if it gets too hot or cold I feel worse.

Brain scan“Imagine you’ve gone out on a good night and worn the tightest pair of shoes, and the next day your feet are killing you. That’s what it’s like constantly living with diabetic nerve damage. I just wish there was more doctors could do to help people like me, which is why better understanding of the disease through research is vital.”

The pioneering research, which will benefit patients like Tracey, was conducted by Dr Dinesh Selvarajah, a Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Diabetes at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital and a team from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and University of Sheffield led by Professor Solomon Tesfaye and Professor Iain Wilkinson.

The research was funded by JDRF, the leading global funder of Type 1 diabetes research.

Dr Dinesh Selvarajah, of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: “Diabetic nerve damage has a massive impact on the quality of people’s lives, physically, mentally and socially.

“With the number of people suffering from diabetes around the world soaring, these are significant findings. Our study reveals for the first time how extensively involved diabetic neuropathy is in the brain, causing shrinking and a reduction in the main part of the brain associated with sensation. This is a new insight which will go a long way towards helping us better understand, treat and prevent a disease which we thought to be fairly innocuous in terms of effects on the brain.

“The next steps will be for us to investigate at what stage this occurs, what the consequences of this are and whether it can be prevented as it could be impacting on patient’s behaviour and psychology.”

Iain Wilkinson, an MR Physics Professor within Academic Radiology at the University of Sheffield and an Honorary Consultant Clinical Scientist for Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “To see leading-edge MRI technology pinpoint changes that might play an influential factor in the quality of so many lives highlights the need for clinical research like this. It’s such an important part of our Teaching Hospital and University.

“MRI is such a useful neuroimaging tool in both medicine and patient-based medical research. The technique that we have been using is often termed ‘volumetry’ – recent scanner improvements enable the collection of high quality, high resolution, 3D datasets of the brain in an acceptable time, which, when coupled with the latest image processing systems, enable us to look at, or ‘segment’, different parts of the brain in patients who do or do not have diabetic neuropathy. The overall technique indicates where the differences that we are observing are occurring.”

The grey matter region identified is a major component of the central nervous system, consisting of brain cells (or neurons) which process information from sensory organs in order to decide and execute functions. Loss of nerve cells in the grey matter, more properly known as cerebral atrophy, is highly undesirable as the functions of that area of the brain can become impaired.

Additional information

The study was supported by a $486,000 grant from JDRF, awarded to Professor Solomon Tesfaye, Consultant Diabetologist and Honorary Professor of Diabetic Medicine at the University of Sheffield, and a team of colleagues from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Sheffield.
According to recent figures, the number of people suffering with diabetes is expected to hit an all-time UK high by 2025, soaring to five million cases.

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Sheffield Teaching Hospitals is one of the UK’s largest NHS Foundation Trusts and one of the largest and busiest teaching hospitals. We have over 15,000 staff caring for over a million patients each year at our five hospitals and in the local community:
• The Royal Hallamshire Hospital
• The Northern General Hospital
• Charles Clifford Dental Hospital
• Weston Park Cancer Hospital
• Jessop Wing Maternity Hospital
We offer a full range of local hospital and community health services for people in Sheffield as well as specialist hospital services to patients from further afield in our many specialist centres.

The Trust is recognised internationally for its work in neurosciences, spinal injuries, renal, cancer, transplantation, neurosciences and orthopaedics.

The Trust has been awarded the title of ‘Hospital Trust of the Year’ in the Good Hospital Guide three times in five years and we are proud to be one of the top 20% of NHS Trusts for patient satisfaction.

The Trust is a recognised leader in medical research for bone, cardiac, neurosciences and long term conditions such as diabetes and lung disease. We also play a key role in the training and education of medical, nursing and dental students with our academic partners, including the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam.
For more information visit: www.sth.nhs.uk

University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

Sheffield

Sheffield team show simplicity is key to co-operative robots



17 April 2014

  • Research has discovered way of getting thousands of robots to cluster together and carry out tasks
  • Until now, robotic swarms have required complex programming. These robots would be simple and cheap
  • Robot swarms could be used to monitor pollution levels or carry out hazardous tasks

A way of making hundreds – or even thousands – of tiny robots cluster to carry out tasks without using any memory or processing power has been developed by engineers at the University of Sheffield.

The team, working in the Sheffield Centre for Robotics (SCentRo), in the University’s Faculty of Engineering, has programmed extremely simple robots that are able to form a dense cluster without the need for complex computation, in a similar way to how a swarm of bees or a flock of birds is able to carry out tasks collectively.

[embedded content]

The work, published today (Thursday 17 April 2014) in the International Journal of Robotics Research, paves the way for robot ‘swarms’ to be used in, for example, the agricultural industry where precision farming methods could benefit from the use of large numbers of very simple and cheap robots.

A group of 40 robots has been programmed to perform the clustering task and the researchers have shown, using computer simulations, that this could be expanded to include thousands of robots.

Each robot uses just one sensor that tells them whether or not they can ‘see’ another robot in front of them. Based on whether or not they can see another robot, they will either rotate on the spot, or move around in a circle until they can see one.

In this way they are able to gradually form and maintain a cluster formation. The system’s ingenuity lies in its simplicity. The robots have no memory, do not need to perform any calculations and require only very little information about the environment.

Until now robotic swarms have required complex programming, which means it would be extremely difficult to miniaturise the individual robots. With the programming developed by the Sheffield team however, it could be possible to develop extremely small – even nanoscale – machines.

The Sheffield system also shows that even if the information perceived by the robots gets partially corrupted, the majority of them will still be able to work together to complete the task.

Roderich Gross, of SCentRo, explained: “What we have shown is that robots do not need to compute to solve problems like that of gathering into a single cluster, and the same could be true for swarming behaviours that we find in nature, such as in bacteria, fish, or mammals.

“This means we are able to ‘scale up’ these swarms, to use thousands of robots that could then be programmed to perform tasks. In a real world scenario, this could involve monitoring the levels of pollution in the environment; we could also see them being used to perform tasks in areas where it would be hazardous for humans to go. Because they are so simple, we could also imagine these robots being used at the micron-scale, for example in healthcare technologies, where they could travel through the human vascular network to offer diagnosis or treatment in a non-invasive way.”

The researchers are now focusing on programming the robots to accomplish simple tasks by interacting with other objects, for example by moving them around or by sorting them into groups.

Additional information

1. “Self-Organized Aggregation without Computation”, by Melvin Gauci, Jianing Chen, Wei Li, Tony J. Dodd, Roderich Gross, is published in the International Journal of Robotics Research. A copy of the paper is available on request.

2. Engineering in Sheffield
The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Sheffield – the 2011 Times Higher Education’s University of the Year – is one of the biggest and best engineering faculties in the UK. Its seven departments include over 4,000 of the brightest students and 900 staff, and have research-related income worth more than £50M per annum from government, industry and charity sources. Its research income recently overtook the University of Cambridge, confirming its status as one of the best institutions in the world to study engineering. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) confirmed that two thirds of the research carried out was either Internationally Excellent or Internationally Leading.

The Faculty’s expertise is extensive – its academic departments and two interdisciplinary programme areas cover all the engineering disciplines. They are leaders in their fields and outstanding contributors to the development of new knowledge, with world-leading academics linking their research to the teaching of the engineers of tomorrow.

The Faculty has a long tradition of working with industry including Rolls-Royce, Network Rail and Siemens. Its industrial successes are exemplified by the award-winning Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and the new £25 million Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC).

The Faculty of Engineering is committed to ensuring students studying at Sheffield continue to benefit from world-class labs and teaching space through the provision of the University’s new Engineering Graduate School. This brand new building, which will become the centre of the faculty´s postgraduate research and postgraduate teaching activities, will form the first stage in a 15 year plan to improve and extend the existing estate in a bid to provide students with the best possible facilities while improving their student experience.

To find out more about Engineering in Sheffield, visit: Engineering

3. This work was supported by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta), the European Union – European Social Fund (ESF), under Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, “Empowering People for More Jobs and a Better Quality of Life”, and the Marie Curie European Reintegration Grant within the 7th European Community Framework Programme.

Contact

For further information please contact:

Shemina Davis
Media Relations Manager
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 5339
shemina.davis@sheffield.ac.uk

Sheffield

Cereal Box Characters Look Down at Kids


60-Second Science

Tony the Tiger and his kid-friendly cohort tend to gaze downward whereas the Quaker Oats guy stares straight ahead at thee. Karen Hopkin reports
Apr 15, 2014
|By Karen Hopkin

|

When you walk down the cereal aisle, do you ever get the feeling that Cap’n Crunch is looking at you? Well, that’s just silly. He’s actually looking at your kids. That’s according to a study by Brian Wansink and colleagues at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. [Aviva Musicus, Aner Tal and Brian Wansink, Eyes in the Aisles: Why Is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?]
 
The researchers wondered whether the characters on cereal boxes actually make eye contact. And whether that could influence a shopper’s choice of breakfast fare. So they hit the cereal aisle. And they found that kids’ cereals tend to be placed on lower shelves than grownup offerings. What’s more, Tony the Tiger and his kid-friendly pals tend to gaze downward, while the Quaker Oats guy stares straight ahead.
 
In a second study, adult volunteers were handed a box of Trix. On some boxes, the rabbit looked straight ahead, on others, he gazed away. When asked what they thought of Trix, it seems that folks felt more connected to the brand, and said they preferred that cereal over others, when the rabbit looked them in the eye.
 
The results, which appear in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, suggest that certain tricks are not just for kids…but maybe for marketers, too.
 
—Karen Hopkin  
 
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
 

Gardening Tips

Air Pollution Intensifies Pacific Storms

Pollution from China’s coal-burning power plants has increased the strength of storms in the Pacific Northwest by 10 percent over the last three decades

Apr 15, 2014
|By Becky Oskin and LiveScience

|

Pollution from China’s coal-burning power plants is pumping up winter storms over the northwest Pacific Ocean and changing North America’s weather, a new study finds.

Northwest Pacific winter storms are now 10 percent stronger than they were 30 years ago, before Asian countries began their industrial boom, according to research published today (April 14) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

North America will be hardest hit by the intensifying storms, which move from west to east, said lead study author Yuan Wang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“The increasing pollution in Asian countries is not just a local problem, it can affect other parts of the world,” Wang told Live Science.

Aerosol emissions have rapidly increased in Asia in recent decades. For example, China is now the world’s largest coal consumer, and in Beijing, air pollution levels have soared 400 times higher than World Health Organization limits. In contrast, aerosols from North America and Europe have meanwhile decreased, because of clean air regulations. [China's Top 6 Environmental Concerns]

Wang and his co-authors examined how the tiny pollution particles in Asia play a role in cloud formation and the storms that spin up each winter east of Japan, in a cyclone breeding ground north of 30 degrees latitude. Monsoon winds carry aerosols from Asia to this storm nursery in the winter.

The researchers created a computer model of six kinds of aerosol pollution and tested their effects on clouds, precipitation and global weather patterns. Different aerosols affect storms in varying ways, such as by blocking the sun’s radiation or providing a nucleus around which water vapor can condense to form raindrops.

The new study finds that sulfate aerosols are among the most important drivers of Pacific storms, by encouraging more moisture to condense in clouds, Wang said.

Pollution from Asia is also changing weather patterns over North America, Wang added.

Wang said this winter’s unusually cold weather east of the Rocky Mountains could have been influenced by pollution-driven cyclones and high-pressure systems in the northern Pacific. These Pacific weather patterns caused swoops in the jet stream that drove cold air south across the central and eastern United States — the so-called polar vortex. The same weather patterns are linked with record-high temperatures in Alaska this winter.

“This cold winter in the U.S. probably had something to do with stronger cyclones over the Pacific,” Wang said.

The researchers are testing more sophisticated computer models to better understand the effects of stronger storms and increasing pollution on global weather patterns, Wang said.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Just 1 Rock Concert or Football Game May Cause Permanent Hearing Damage

A single exposure to loud but not deafening noise may be enough to precipitate irreparable harm to nerves in the auditory system. This is the take-home from a new line of research that may help explain why many people, particularly as they age, have difficulty in picking out a conversation from the wall of background noise that is a requisite accompaniment to any football game or meal at a family-style restaurant.

Studies over the past five years in animals—with some evidence now coming from human research—are starting to overturn conventional wisdom about hearing loss. It was previously thought that the downside of exposure to the raucous sounds of an afternoon sporting event might do nothing more than leave you with the sensation that your ears were filled with cotton for a while, but then hearing would more or less return to normal.

Only years, perhaps decades, of assaulting the sensitive recesses of the inner ear would be enough to kill off the minute hair cells in the fluid-filled cavity where vibrations of sound waves are converted into electrical signals for processing inside the brain. It was thought that only with the hair cells gone would your ability diminish to hear clearly through the busyness of the daily aural clamor.  (Of course, standing unprotected beside a jet engine for even a short period will do the trick of getting rid of hair cells immediately.)

The textbook account of what happens when things get loud may be a wholly inadequate depiction of what is really going on for many of the millions in the U.S. who suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. M. Charles Liberman and Sharon G. Kujawa, neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary who study the auditory system, have found that hair cells can survive an Animal House-style frat event, but the connecting nerve fibers that channel electrical signals into the brain may sustain permanent damage.

Their work in mice, guinea pigs and chinchillas has confirmed that a one-time exposure to a loud sound can cause withering of some of the uninsulated tips of nerve fibers that make their way into the brain. Their disappearance severs the connection to the hair cells across the tiny gap, or synapse. “There’s every reason to think that exactly the same thing is going on in our ears,” Liberman says. “At the level of the inner ear, all mammalian ears look the same,”  He conjectures that, in noisy conditions, an excess of a signaling molecule, the neurotransmitter glutamate, is released from the hair cells into the synapse. Over a period ranging from months to years, the disconnected fiber leads to the death of  the entire nerve cell—of which the synaptic nerve fiber is just a long extension.

There are up to 25 nerve fibers for each of the up to 4,000 signal-converting hair cells in humans. When a few of them die, it may at first produce a minimal impact on the ability to hear but, if the losses continue with repeated exposures, there is a slow decline in the acuity of what your ears can pick up. “You can create a visual analogy that if you downsample the pixels in an image, you can tell if there’s something there but you can’t tell what it is,” Liberman says.

The loss in auditory resolution doesn’t turn up on the traditional audiogram that measures the functioning of hair cells by determining whether they can detect a sound of a particular loudness and frequency. The threshold at which a sound can be discerned goes up after exposure to loud sounds but then, given a few hours or days, often returns to where it was. Some 90 percent of the nerve cells can die but an audiogram can still be completely normal. At this point, you might be able to still hear sounds emanating from a dinner partner across the table, but have no capacity to distinguish individual words.

Liberman did seminal work in the 1980s on how noise kills hair cells. He had always wanted to find out what happens to the nerve fibers that connect to the hair cells, but until recent years, the needed staining agents to highlight the nerve endings under a microscope simply did not exist.

Research is now broadening beyond lab animals. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has begun to do studies on Iraqi War veterans who have have impaired hearing despite normal readings on audiograms. Liberman and Kujawa have inspected 100 specimens of temporal bones that enclose the middle and inner ear from a collection at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. The bones came from individuals ranging from newborns to centenarians. For older individuals, there was a significant loss of the nerve cells that carry an electrical representation of sound into the brain, whereas the hair cells remained intact.

Liberman and Kujawa have started contemplating therapeutic measures to restore synapses. They are investigating whether injection of growth factor proteins through a membrane in the middle ear may allow the truncated nerve fibers to make new synapses and restore normal hearing—an idea that a Boston-based venture firm has shown interest in.  They are also interested in determining whether a similar loss of nerve fibers may play a role in tinnitis (ringing in the ear) and what effect this may have on the ear’s vestibular system, and whether it might compromise balance.

Others have also started to take notice. “Charlie and Sharon’s work at Harvard has been extremely compelling in demonstrating in animal models how loud sounds can have a detrimental and cumulative impact on the auditory system and affect hearing,” says Frank Lin, a professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins. “Their research emphasizes the importance and need for greater hearing conservation efforts focused on minimizing cumulative noise exposure over one’s lifetime.”

Paul Fuchs, a professor of neuroscience and biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins adds: ”Synaptopathic’ hearing loss is an important addition to our understanding of hearing and deafness, especially since evidence shows that such damage can be caused by sound exposures previously thought to be harmless,”

If the evidence continues to mount, it could have implications for public-health policy. Liberman thinks repeated hits of noise exposure can be compared to the experiences of professional football players who sustain multiple, small concussions throughout their careers before being diagnosed decades later with a form of dementia,  chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). “There are analogies to CTE,” he says. “You get woozy from a concussion, you get better and think you’ve dodged a bullet and then you go out and do it again. Thirty years later, your brain is cheesecloth and you’ve got all sorts of problems.” Hearing is similar, he says. “The body’s little imperceptible deficits later catch up to you.”

Any sustained exposure to sound above 100 decibels for a few hours may potentially put you at risk for one of those little imperceptible deficits, Liberman thinks.  Some of the inter-city rivalry last fall between fans at Seattle Seahawks and  Kansas City Chiefs home games to attempt  the Guinness world record for the loudest stadium noise left fans boasting that their ears rang for days after. “Some percentage of people did irreparable damage,” Liberman says. It may be that the NFL may have to start worrying about the long-term brain health of their fans along with that of their players.

Image Source: David Benbennick

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