Science In The Real World
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Strange objects from the sky, killer animals on the rampage, flesh-eating robots, and of course scientists tampering in God's domain - you'll find it all here! More.. More..

Ever 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, I’ve 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 I’m ever granted the honour of actually meeting Dr Freex, remind me to stay out of cane’s reach….]
With this in mind, we hereby present the good doctor’s contributions to Science In The Real World:

THE FREEX REPORT

Scientists tamper in God’s 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 lab.
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.

[Dr Freex: "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 before?"]

Radioactive seagulls attack the Arctic!
(From New Scientist, 4/1/03)

Droppings from 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 Sea.
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 ago.
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.

[Dr Freex: "I tried to warn the world! Jonathan Livingston Seagull will kill us all!"]

Scientist creates remote-controlled rats!
(From The New York Times, 22/12/02)

The grand 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, 21/12/02)

Was it part of nature's enigmatic web, or part of a sinister web of conspiracy in the black-helicopter, secret-mass-experiment vein?
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 Cruz, Calif., … 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 "web-like material … 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 little murky.
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, I’ve never seen Reptilicus – why do you ask?"
(From United Press International, 16/12/02)

Researchers have 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, he said.
"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 devices."

(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 King’s "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 voltage".
The carbon fiber is a special concoction:
"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.
Fishermen’s 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 to humans.
Fishermen reported thousands of the giant jellyfish trapped in their nets.
Biologist Toru Yasuda said: "We don’t know what caused this, but it may be warm water temperatures."
(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 sheep."
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 successfully.
(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, 20/11/02)

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 Wednesday night.
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 environment.
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 organism.
"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.

Fashion designers invent foil cap to protect against mobile phone emissions; Jason Biggs signs multi-million dollar advertising deal
(From Reuters, 18/11/02)

A Norwegian-based 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 conflicting evidence.
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 either.
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 I’d thought of that’ moment."]

Lightweight radiation-proof fabric unveiled; experts agree – it’s practical and alluring!
(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.

[Dr Freex: "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 away!"]

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 angst.
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 age.
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 Daily, 15/10/02)

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 disorders."

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 intact.

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.

[Dr Freex: "Straight from that episode of Batman: The Animated Series, featuring the revamped Scarecrow, as played by Jeffrey Combs.…"]

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