wondered why Freeman Williams chooses to call himself "Dr Freex"?
Sure, some of you might think that "Freex" is the critical part of his moniker,
but I know better. Since I began asking for "real world science" submissions,
Ive received a perfect flood from the direction of south-eastern Texas. One thing is
painfully clear: the Grand Old Man* of the Bad Movie community is clearly a thwarted Mad
Scientist, his sleepless nights spent in longing contemplation of What Might Have Been,
had he chosen a career less fiscally secure than acting and writing.
[*If Im ever granted the honour of actually meeting Dr Freex, remind me to
stay out of canes reach
With this in mind, we hereby present the good doctors contributions to Science In
The Real World:
THE FREEX REPORT
Scientists tamper in Gods
domain! Claim, "Everyone does it!"
(From New Scientist, 16/1/03)
The world's first
truly artificial organism has been engineered by researchers in California.
The bacterium makes an amino acid that no other organism uses to build proteins. The work
is being hailed as "a very great accomplishment" and the technique promises to
open unique avenues for manufacturing drugs.
Amino acids are the fundamental building blocks of life, making up the proteins which
constitute all living cells. The DNA of every organism on Earth contains three-letter
codes, known as codons, for 20 such amino acids.
Now, a team led by Peter Schultz of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla has managed
to coax E. coli bacteria to produce a 21st amino acid and use it to make
a protein, using only natural food sources such as sugar and water.
Schultz's team combined many different techniques to achieve their goal. First, the
researchers made the bacteria produce the new amino acid, p-aminophenylalanine (pAF). For
this they stole genes from other bacteria that make pAF as a secondary metabolite and
added them to the E. coli bacteria.
Next, the team had to make the bacteria's protein-making machinery recognise pAF. They
evolved a mutant E. coli strain that had a specific combination of transfer RNA and
the enzyme synthetase, which could grab pAF for the protein factory whenever it
encountered a particular termination codon. This amber codon normally signals the end of a
gene, and therefore protein synthesis, but is rarely used by the bacteria.
Finally, they inserted into the bacteria a sperm whale gene that codes for the protein
myoglobin. The gene was first modified by adding the amber codon in places known not to
affect the protein. With all these changes in place, the bacteria started producing
myoglobin with pAF incorporated exactly where intended.
"We had to make it work just like all the other 20 amino acids," says team
member Ryan Mehl, formerly at Scripps and now at the Franklin and Marshall College in
Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "This is the first time anyone has ever combined all these
and had a healthy, reproducing organism indistinguishable from a natural organism."
Hiroaki Suga, of the University of Buffalo in New York, agrees. Suga, an expert on
techniques of evolving catalytic RNA to produce non-natural amino acids in the lab, told New
Scientist: "The result is amazing. It's a very great accomplishment."
It is not yet clear what advantage, if any, the 21st amino acid confers on the
bacteria. Schultz's team is putting the modified bacteria through its paces to see if they
can out-compete natural ones, at least in the lab.
But even if they do, there is no fear of these bacteria running amok in the wild, says
Mehl. They are special research strains that cannot live without the nutrients supplied in
The technique should help engineer proteins to make better drugs. Normally, pharmaceutical
companies have to modify natural enzymes to stabilise them for use as drugs.
But if bacteria, or even higher organisms, can be genetically engineered to produce new
amino acids that make longer-lasting and more effective enzymes, drug production could
become more efficient and cheaper, says Mehl.
And there is no reason to stop at 21 amino acids. "In theory, the sky is the
limit," he says.
"The science is this close to being more than I can comprehend, but it's the
paragraph halfway down that interests me:
"But even if they do, there is no
fear of these bacteria running amok in the wild, says Mehl. They are special research
strains that cannot live without the nutrients supplied in the lab."
Now where have I heard that
Radioactive seagulls attack the
(From New Scientist, 4/1/03)
seabirds could be introducing radioactive isotopes into the food chain. That is the
conclusion of researchers who found high levels of radioactivity in droppings and plants
on an island close to the Arctic.
If tests confirm that the guano is bringing radioactivity ashore, it will need to be
factored into pollution assessments that gauge radiation risks to human health and
ecosystems. The risk is probably low at temperate latitudes, but could be much greater in
the fragile wastes of the Arctic. There, guano is a major source of nutrients for plants,
which are then eaten by animals.
Radioactive material gets into the oceans from natural geological processes on the sea
floor, but radioactive isotopes from human nuclear activity can add to this. In the
Arctic, radioactive material has been dumped in the Kara Sea to the east of the Barents
And radioactive material from nuclear accidents such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster has
reached the seas, along with particles from atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons.
The evidence that bird droppings are bringing radioactivity ashore comes from Mark Dowdall
and his team at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority in Troms°. They spent two
years between 2000 and 2002 collecting soil, vegetation and guano samples from a remote
coastal inlet called Kongsfjord on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, about halfway
between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole.
The samples of bird droppings were from vast piles produced by two colonies of seabirds
supporting kittiwakes, puffins and fulmars. Tests showed the guano contained 10 times the
concentration of radioactive isotopes found at other sites on the island.
The researchers found unusually high concentrations of the natural radioisotopes
uranium-238 and radium-226, which decay to form more hazardous isotopes. But they also
found high concentrations of the isotope caesium-137, which does not occur naturally.
Dowdall suspects this is from the fallout of atmospheric nuclear tests carried out decades
Tests on vegetation growing near the guano also revealed high concentrations of
radioactive material. "It means that low levels in the Arctic environment don't stay
low, they become concentrated," he says.
Dowdall believes the birds eat contaminated fish and crustaceans, and the radioactive
material is then concentrated in their faeces. The extra nutrients the droppings provide
encourage plants to grow, and the plants take up and concentrate the radioactive material.
This poses a problem, because plants make up the bulk of the diet of many animals,
especially that of indigenous reindeer. "We're talking about a very vulnerable
environment, and when reindeer eat the [contaminated] vegetation, it's in the food
chain," says Dowdall.
Environmental researchers are intrigued by the finding. "I don't think people have
looked at this particular pathway before," says Scott Fowler at the International
Atomic Energy Authority's Marine Environmental Lab in Monaco.
However, in 1999, pigeons roosting in contaminated buildings on the site of British
Nuclear Fuels' Sellafield reprocessing complex in Cumbria were found to contain 40 times
the European Union's safe limit of caesium-137.
"I tried to warn the world! Jonathan Livingston Seagull will kill us all!"]
Scientist creates remote-controlled rats!
(From The New York Times,
21st-century movement toward industrialized biology took a rapid scurry forward this year
with the invention of a remote-controlled rodent.
The ''ratbot,'' created at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in
Brooklyn, is a lab rat wearing a tiny radio-controlled backpack, operated by a human
working at a remote laptop computer. Three wires connect the backpack to the rat's brain.
One sends a signal that makes the rat turn left, the other makes it turn right and the
third stimulates the ''medial forebrain bundle,'' causing sensations of intense pleasure
to the rat. By firing the pleasure button whenever the rat turns or moves in the desired
direction, the human operator can direct the ratbot to scurry through tight pipes, climb
trees, even master its instinctive fear and stroll boldly through brightly lighted open
spaces -- lured on by this overwhelming electronic bliss.
The SUNY researchers play up the noble idea that cheap, disposable rats might carry out
the dangerous activities of expensively trained rescue dogs. Outfitted with tiny video
cameras, ratbots might search for earthquake victims trapped under rubble, for instance.
But it is just as easy to envision many vastly more sinister applications of ratbots in
the fields of espionage and warfare. A rat that will go where it is told is an ideal
delivery system for biological weapons.
And recall: rats are traditional lab specimens because most anything that can be done to a
rat can be done to a human. How many people would seek out this ''botting'' process just
for the ecstatic sense of pleasurable surrender to another's commanding will? To be
botted, with or without one's consent, may turn out to be one of the age's darkest and
creepiest native vices.
Mass spider migration hits
Texas; residents await arrival of William Shatner
(From The Daily News, Galveston,
Was it part of
nature's enigmatic web, or part of a sinister web of conspiracy in the black-helicopter,
Hard to say, but one thing seems clear: The skies over Galveston County on Friday were
literally filled with floating, shimmering strands and fuzzy, luminescent wads that looked
a lot like spider webs.
Lorenzo DeLacerta saw them about noon when he delivered building material to a site a mile
east of the San Louis Pass Bridge.
"It blew my mind," DeLacerta said. "I have never seen anything like it
before." Others on the site saw them, too, he said, but their minds were not blown.
"They were like Yeah?' They didn't seem to think much about it."
Lorenzo called his sister, Gloria, who saw the same thing in the sky over La Marque. She
called The Daily News where a half dozen skeptical news people were forced to admit that
there was, indeed, under way a slow, steady parade of slender web-like strands, some near
the ground, some way up where the airliners ply.
The webs were visible in the air for five hours, and poles were left wrapped with the
sticky strands and fuzzy wads. So what were they? Official sky-web sources seem scarce. A
spokesman at the National Weather Service Office in League City said the service had
received no reports of flying webs, and that flying webs weren't really their thing. The
phenomenon has occurred in at least two other places. The Associated Press reported Oct. 8
that "long, floating spider webs" were "bobbing through the skies of Santa
confusing some community members concerned about biological weapons,
UFOs and other phenomena."
And the Wallowa Chieftain in Oregon reported on Dec. 22, 2000, the sightings of
falling from the sky" that some locals thought came
"from three military jets that had been flying back and forth in an east-west flight
pattern at high altitude."
A University of Wyoming microbiology professor quoted in the AP story attributed the Santa
Cruz webs to a seasonal migration of hatchling spiders leaving their nests. The professor,
who did not return messages left at his home and office, said it was not uncommon to see
"dozens" of webs floating across the plains of Wyoming.
But observers here were not reporting dozens of webs, but hundreds of thousands. One
explanation, of sorts, can be found on the World Wide Web, where scores of people are
convinced that the webs are man-made and may be part of a sinister conspiracy. Like a lot
of web-based topics, exactly what is the man-made material and the conspiracy's goal is a
Some posts say the webs appear on days when strange condensation trails, like those from
jet airplanes, also occur. Was Galveston County visited by a mundane migration of
arachnids or something else?
Lorenzo DeLacerta, who spent Friday contemplating the webs, does not know what they were,
but he says he's sure of one thing. "I have never seen anything like this before. I
have seen spiders floating on webs before, but I have never seen this."
Scientists wake up
3,000-year-old microbes; says researcher, "No, Ive never seen Reptilicus
why do you ask?"
(From United Press International,
revived microbes that spent nearly three millennia at the bottom of an ice-sealed,
extremely salty lake in Antarctica, they reported Monday.
This is the first time such a combination of extremes in cold, salt -- some seven times
saltier than Earth's oceans -- and darkness has been known to yield life, the researchers
said. Unraveling the biochemistry of how these germs survived might shed light not only on
the origins of life on Earth, but how alien life might still exist on Mars.
"We're probing the edges of life on Earth -- how far can we push life?"
researcher Peter Doran, an Earth scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told
United Press International.
With the aid of ground-penetrating radar, Doran and colleagues discovered a super-salty
liquid zone buried some 60 feet below the surface of 3-mile-long Lake Vida, in
Antarctica's Victory Valley, about 95 miles (150 kilometers) from McMurdo Sound. Experts
previously thought the lake was frozen year-round.
Over the course of two weeks, as they camped out in temperatures of -40 degrees Fahrenheit
(also -40 degrees Celsius), the researchers drilled two ice cores down near the water
pocket, each 4 inches wide.
"The drill team said it was the most horrendous ice they ever went through,"
Doran added, with the dirt in the ice frequently ruining drill bits and with a complete
motor replacement necessary at one point.
In the Dec. 16 online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the
researchers described how they revived microbes from the drill cores that radiocarbon
dating indicated are at least 2,800 years old. The nearby water pocket can remain in a
liquid state because its high salt level lowers its freezing point.
"These life forms may possess novel ice-active substances such as antifreezes and ice
nucleation inhibitors that allow the organisms to survive the freeze-thaw cycles and come
back to life when exposed to liquid water," said researcher John Priscu of Montana
State University in Bozeman.
Such oases of life in environments previously thought to be inhospitable might also shed
light on ancient life on Mars, the researchers said.
"There was a lot of water on Mars in the past. A lot of people think it went from
warm to cold," Doran said. "You would have these shallow brines like Lake Vida
as the last ecosystems on Mars when the planet cooled down, as it got covered in ice.
These places would have been the last breath of life there before the water froze solid,
if it didn't find a way to go underground and survive, which I believe it did."
Doran said he does not expect life more advanced than microbes to live in Lake Vida.
Still, "it's fascinating from the point of view of evolution of life on this
planet," microbiologist Warwick Vincent of the UniversitÚ Laval in Quebec City,
Canada, told UPI. Earth once was in the grip of global ice ages, such as the
"snowball Earth" situation that enveloped the planet some 550 million years ago,
"These were critical periods in the evolution of life," Vincent said. "This
discovery suggests microhabitats that could have existed to provide a refuge for the
survival of early life during these times."
The researchers have yet to drill into the salty water pocket itself, as they lacked the
equipment to ensure against clean entry into the lake. They plan to go back and get brine
samples as part of a follow-up study from NASA. In the meantime, the old holes from the
ice cores were filled with de-ionized water to prevent contamination, with temperature
sensors embedded in one of the shafts.
Scientist creates electronic
vampires! Explains, "The old kind were so boring!"
(From Zzz Online, 11/12/02)
[NB: This story is a doozy, but
unfortunately, none of the links provided are still active. However, I decided to include
it as I first received it, via direct commentary from Dr Freex. Who else finds it as
disturbing as I do?]
You gotta wonder
about some egg heads, take for instance Dr. Adam Heller (Department of Chemical
Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin), I mean he may not be the kind of guy that
flips a turtle over in the sun to just to see what happens, in fact he is probably a nice
fellow, but he is proposing some strange little electronic vampires.
The Project Goal you ask?
"The goal of this project is to
create basis electrodes for a biofuel cell in which glucose is electro-oxidized at the
anode and oxygen is electroreduced at the cathode at neutral pH. The volumetric power
density of the cell, including the liquid passing through it, will be ~1 mW/cm at the
glucose and oxygen concentrations of arterial blood"
Right, now, there is going to be a quiz later so I want to be sure you all got that
completely mesmerized, er, pardon me I seem to be running my laptop off a couple of zinc
and copper electrodes jammed into my head, memorized. Yep, it's the beginning of the
borgization program (and you thought day of the potato-powered server was just a horrible
legend, well how about day of the baby bunny-powered server?). This fellow wants to
extract electricity directly from the life blood of living organisms.
According to his site the potential applications are :
"Small power sources operating in
plants and in animals, powering microsensors, microactuators, and telemetry devices.
Small power sources powering implanted medical sensors, actuators, and telemetry
(Hmm, 'telemetry devices', wonder if this guy has plans to work with destron fearing?)
I am sure there are tons of good ideas for
this thing, it just seems so damn creepy. Kind of a cross between The Matrix
and Stephen Kings "Tommyknockers". Heller (what a name for a project like
this) has already made great strides towards his device, having already:
"developed a 200 nW fuel cell
consisting of two 7 Ám diameter, 2 cm long, carbon fibers. This power was reached in a
cell with a stagnant pH 5.0 aqueous electrolyte at 37░C and at 0.4V operating
The carbon fiber is a special
"The anodic and cathodic electrocatalysts of the biofuel cell are
enzymes, immobilized in porous hydrophilic graphite matrices. Redox hydrogels are used to
immobilize and electrically connect ("wire") reaction centers of the enzymes to
porous carbon surfaces. Mechanically tough composites are formed, withstanding the shear
generated by rapidly flowing (1-10 cm/s linear velocity) blood"
O.K., somehow that description does not make
me feel better about the whole project
. When you read the whole thing it is a little
weird, because it makes you wonder if Heller is an A.I. or possibly an alien.
As far as I know he hasn't tried his invention on living animals yet, but I am quite
curious what effect 'electro-oxidized' glucose and 'electro-reduced' oxygen has on
everything downstream from this bloodflow power generator? I mean one of the normal
problems with bio-implants in blood vessel is potential clotting, seems like these ionic
bits would immediately recombined and "seed' clotting by clumping up.
But, I have always imagined the future of biometric devices would utilize some type of
technology like this and perfection of this "Implantable Biofuel Cell Electrode"
could open the door for a whole new variety of prosthetic devices powered by the persons
own blood. Maybe you could even build them around a titantium "bone marrow" (for
blood production) cage created with the 3-d robocaster.
Giant jellyfish attack Japan!
(From The Sun, 21/11/02)
A diver takes a look
at one of the thousands of monster jellyfish which have invaded a stretch of coastline.
The huge creatures are 3ft wide, 15ft long and weigh up to 23st.
Fishermens catches have been halved by the biggest plague of the Molophus nomurai
for 44 years off Echizen, Japan.
The poison from the species tentacles discolours and sickens fish but is not lethal
Fishermen reported thousands of the giant jellyfish trapped in their nets.
Biologist Toru Yasuda said: "We dont know what caused this, but it may be warm
(Go to http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2002551121,00.html?
for a photograph)
Spiders build gigantic web in
British Columbia; say the spiders, "Pull this off, and we eat like kings!"
(From CBC News, 27/11/02)
A biology professor
in northern British Columbia has spotted a clover field crawling with spiders.
Brian Thair of the College of New Caledonia in Prince George said he saw a silky, white
web stretching 60 acres across a field.
"When you see horror movies with spider web festooned from this place to that place
and so on, it comes nowhere near approaching what occurred in this field," Thair told
CBC Radio's As It Happens.
A typical barbwire fence on wood posts surrounded the field about six kilometres east of
McBride in the Robson Valley. Thair said it looked like the whole area was covered with an
opaque, white plastic grocery store bag.
The thin, elastic coasting was not soft and fluffy like webs built by individual spiders.
There were about two spiders per square centimetre laying the silk, which first appeared
in early October.
Thair said the web showed great tensile strength enough to put a handful of coins
on it without them falling through.
There were "in the order of tens of millions of spiders running frantically back and
forth," but they weren't interacting with each other.
Since the spiders didn't seem to care if an occasional insect stumbled into their
construction, Thair doesn't think it was built for trapping purposes.
He suggests the spiders encountered an enormous quantity of high quality, nutritious prey
to be able to accomplish this feat.
But he's also heard other suggestions.
"Some people have said, 'oh yes, well it's a trampoline for aliens,'" Thair
joked. "Or maybe it was an effort collectively by these spiders to try and catch a
Snowstorms and wind have blown away much of the web since he first spotted it the week of
Oct. 27, but Thair intends to return to the field to see if the spiders have mated
(Go to http://cbc.ca/news/features/spiderweb/
for a photo gallery)
[Dr Freex: "Sixty acre
web. Let me repeat that: Sixty. Acre. Web."]
Scientists to create new life-form;
promise that nothing can possibly go wrnog
(From The Washington Post,
Scientists intend to
announce Thursday that they will attempt to create a new form of life in a laboratory
dish, The Washington Post reported.
Gene scientist J. Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate, will announce their
hopes of creating a single-celled, partially man-made organism with the minimum number of
genes necessary to sustain life.
If the plan works, the microscopic man-made cell will begin feeding and dividing to create
a population of cells unlike any known to exist, the Post reported on its Web site
The cell will be hobbled to render it incapable of infecting people -- a step in ensuring
safety, the Post said. It also will be confined and designed to die if it does escape into
The project could lay the scientific groundwork for a new generation of biological
weapons. But Venter and Smith said the project could also help in the enhancing the
nation's ability to detect and counter existing biological weapons.
The project is funded with a three-year grant of $3 million from the Energy Department.
The plan is to figure out and model in a computer every aspect of the biology of one
"We are wondering if we can come up with a molecular definition of life," Venter
told the Post. "The goal is to fundamentally understand the components of the most
basic living cell."
The plan will begin with Mycoplasma genitalium, a minuscule organism that lives in
the genital tracts of people and may cause or contribute to an inflammation of the
urethra. All genetic material will be removed from the organism. Scientists will
synthesize an artificial string of genetic material, resembling a naturally occurring
chromosome, that they hope will contain the minimum number of M. genitalium genes needed
to sustain life.
The artificial chromosome will then be inserted in the hollowed-out cell, and will then be
tested for its ability to survive and reproduce.
Venter and Smith founded Celera Genomics Corp., the Rockville, Md.-based company where
researchers tied government scientists in deciphering the human genome two years ago.
Venter resigned from Celera this year and is financing several projects. One of them is
the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, where the work on a new life form is to
be carried out.
designers invent foil cap to protect against mobile phone emissions; Jason Biggs signs
multi-million dollar advertising deal
(From Reuters, 18/11/02)
group launched a novel baseball-style cap this week to shield users of mobile telephones
from radio emissions that some people fear can trigger cancers.
The "Mobile Cap," going on sale for 385 Norwegian crowns ($53) each, includes a
light metal tissue that channels almost 100 percent of radio waves away from the head
while allowing sound to pass through.
"The cap has a layer of woven silver," Walter Kraus, head of the Handy-Fashions
group that produces the headwear, said. "It's no heavier than a normal cap." The
blue or black peaked caps have flaps that fold down over the ear.
Some people worry that radio emissions from mobile telephones can cause brain tumors or
other cancers. But international studies of possible dangers have produced often
A recent study by Australian researchers over three years found that radio emissions from
mobile phones did not trigger tumors in mice, and so probably did not do so in humans
That followed another Australian study on mice five years ago that said cellular phones
could foster tumor growth.
Swedish researchers said that long-term users of first-generation mobiles faced an 80
percent greater risk than non-users of developing brain tumors. But a Danish study last
year of 400,000 mobile phone users found no greater cancer risk.
Professor Peter Pauli of the University of the German Armed Forces said that materials of
fine woven metal like silver, copper or steel could filter out about 95 percent of
emissions from a mobile phone.
"Similar tissues are used to shield sensitive items in rockets and explosives,"
he said. In military equipment, the metal helps prevent sudden radio bursts from
detonating a charge and so could also deflect radiation from the head.
[Dr Freex: "A classic
I wish Id thought of that moment."]
radiation-proof fabric unveiled; experts agree its practical and
(From New Scientist, 15/11/02)
The world's first
lightweight radiation-proof fabric has been developed by a US company.
Called Demron, its potential applications range from lightweight full-body suits - which
would allow the wearer to move unencumbered in high-radiation areas - to protective tents
and radiation-proof linings for aircraft and spacecraft.
Traditional shielding relies on the presence of heavy metals, such as lead. But Demron is
based on a polymer that mimics some of the electronic properties of these heavy metals,
says John Hefler of Radiation Shield Technologies, the company in Miami, Florida, that is
developing the material.
Its inventors claim that it provides protection comparable to the nuclear industry's
standard-issue lead vest, blocking alpha, beta, gamma radiation and X-rays. Traditional
protective clothing only protects against alpha radiation.
Heavy metals have large atoms, and so have large numbers of electrons. When the particles
that make up alpha and beta radiation collide with these electrons, they slow down, and
are absorbed by the material.
The helium nuclei that make up alpha radiation have so little energy that almost any
physical barrier can stop them. Gamma rays and X-rays are highly penetrating forms of
electromagnetic radiation, which can only be stopped if the electrons in a shield's
material can absorb enough of their energy.
Demron consists of a polyethylene and PVC-based polymer fused between two layers of a
woven fabric. The polymer molecule has been designed so that incoming radiation will meet
a large electron cloud, which will deflect or absorbed it.
"The molecules are lined up to give the illusion of the presence of large
atoms," says Hefler. The electrons are capable of deflecting beta radiation or
absorbing the energy of alpha radiation and X-rays.
The nuclear industry is still reserving judgement on the new material. "The potential
usefulness of the fabric will depend on the level of protection it offers against gamma
and X-rays, and how it reacts and degrades when subjected to radiation," says Janine
Claber of British Nuclear Fuels.
"Curse you scientists and your meddling ways! What's next? Artificial gravity? Soon
we'll no longer be able to laugh when the wiseguy from Brooklyn's apple floats
Growth spurt in brain causes
teenage angst; parents, high school, television off the hook
(From Reuters, 16/10/02)
Parents of teenagers
can breathe a sigh of relief; scientists believe they have discovered the cause of teenage
The good news is that the surly, snappy moods and temper tantrums are caused by a
temporary increase in nerve activity in the brain that makes it difficult for adolescents
to process information and read social situations.
The bad news is that it lasts until about 18 years old.
Robert McGivern and his team of neuroscientists at San Diego State University found that
as children enter puberty, their ability to quickly recognize other people's emotion
nosedives, New Scientist magazine reported Wednesday.
Research has shown that during puberty the connectivity of nerves in parts of the brain,
particularly the prefrontal cortex, increases.
"This plays an important role in the assessment of social relationships, as well as
planning and control of our social behavior," McGivern said.
When he and his colleagues tested the ability of people between the ages of 10 and 22
years to judge emotions expressed in images and words, they discovered it altered with
By age 11, the speed at which people could identify emotions such as anger or happiness
dropped by up to 20%. But it gradually improved each year and returned to normal at 18.
McGivern said the temporary "remodeling" of the brain occurs just when teens go
through different social and emotional experiences.
"As a result, they can find emotional situations more confusing, leading to the
petulant, huffy behavior adolescents are notorious for," according to the magazine.
[Dr Freex: "Coming up
next: why teenagers suck!"]
Scientists discover the key to
human fear; disagree over how best to exploit it
(Research conducted at UCLA, reported in Science
In a discovery with
implications for treatment of anxiety disorders, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute
investigators have identified a distinct molecular process in the brain involved in
overcoming fear. The findings will be published in the Oct. 15 edition of the Journal of
Neuroscience. The study of how mice acquire, express and extinguish conditional fear shows
for the first time that L-type voltage-gated calcium channels (LVGCCs) -- one of hundreds
of varieties of electrical switches found in brain cells -- are required to overcome fear
but play no role in becoming fearful or expressing fear. The findings suggest that it may
be possible to identify the cells, synapses and molecular pathways specific to
extinguishing fear, and to the treatment of human anxiety disorders.
"Brain plasticity, or the ability of
the central nervous system to modify cellular connections, has long been recognized as a
key component to learning and memory," said Dr. Mark Barad, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric
Institute's Tennenbaum Family Center faculty scholar and an assistant professor
in-residence of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "The
discovery of a distinct molecular process in overcoming fear bodes well for development of
new drugs that can make psychotherapy, or talk therapy, easier and more effective in
treating anxiety disorders. More broadly, the findings also suggest that distinct
molecular processes may be involved in the expression and treatment of other psychiatric
Both the acquisition and extinction of
conditional fear are forms of active learning. The acquisition of conditional fear
requires a unique pairing of an initially neutral conditional stimulus with an aversive
unconditional stimulus. In this research, the conditional stimulus was a tone and the
unconditional stimulus was a mild foot shock.
Although extinction, the reduction of
conditional responding after repeated exposures to the conditional stimulus alone, might
initially appear to be a passive decay, or erasure of this association, many studies
indicate that extinction is new inhibitory learning, which leaves the original memory
In examining this process, UCLA
researchers used injections of two LVGCC inhibitors -- nifedipine and nimodipine -- to
test whether LVGCC activity is required for the 1) acquisition, 2) expression and 3)
extinction of conditional fear. Results showed that blocking LVGCC activity had no effect
on the acquisition or expression of fear, but effectively prevented extinction.
The research was supported by a National
Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Young Investigator Award, and by the
Forest Award of the West Coast College of Biological Psychiatry.
Other investigators involved in the
project were Chris Cain of the UCLA Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience and Ashley
Blouin of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. Barad also is
affiliated with the UCLA Brain Research Institute.
"Straight from that episode of Batman: The Animated Series, featuring the revamped
Scarecrow, as played by Jeffrey Combs.