Science round-up – stories and research that caught my eye.

I’ve been looking around the interwebs this week, and several things have captured my attention.

1) Small spiders have their brains in their legs. Really.

2) Higgs boson (because according to the media, we can’t get enough of it).

3) Naked mole rats!

4) Hot chocolate helps you think (or does it?)

5) Mystery video for those who persevere to the very end of the post ūüôā

Anapisona simoni: tiny spider, normal-size brain

Little spiders have brains that spill into their legs. This is pretty neat – initially from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute website, but picked up by lots of news sources, including New Scientist’s fun Zoologger column. The gist of it is that big spiders and small spiders have similarly-sized brains, but small spiders have less space for them. Web-weaving requires a fairly complex brain, and neurons can only be so small otherwise they won’t work properly and the little spiders won’t be able to make very good webs (I will not provide the link to the NASA research on spiders weaving webs on drugs, as I’m sure you can google it yourselves).¬†So very small spiders accommodate their brains by allowing them to spill through their thorax and into their legs. Cool.

The Higgs boson (again). I mentioned this the other day, although more precisely, I mentioned the poor science communication associated with describing the Higgs boson. Various news outlets have run lots of stories on this, e.g., the Washington Post. It hasn’t been found yet (did Stephen Hawking sigh with relief?), but the physicists working at CERN have indicated something with more mass than a proton has been potentially detected in LHC collisions.

It is intriguing that they have announced a potential possible result. It’s probably due to the high-profile nature of the Higgs, because in most other science disciplines, you don’t hold a media conference to report on some not-quite-there-yet potential results. It simply wouldn’t hold up: “Yes, I have a theory that larger animals weigh more than small animals, but we’ve only got some preliminary untested evidence and we won’t know if that is true for sure after we do more experiments over the next year”.

It's a mole rat! And it's nekkid! (from National Geographic website)

Naked mole rats have different pain receptors than other mammals. This is fresh off the presses in Science, and a more user-friendly summary is available from New Scientist. I liked this mainly because it gave me an opportunity to include a picture of a naked mole rat! My third year zoology lecturer once said “you simply haven’t lived if you haven’t seen a naked mole rat”, which is something I always thought was a strange thing to say, until I saw one myself.

The research indicated that special¬†sodium channels in pain-sensing receptors in sensory neurons get excited differently in naked mole rats and mice. The channels act (get blocked) to stop the pain response to exposure to acid. The blocking effect in mole rats was stronger than that for mice, so essentially, the pain signals dissipate before they make it to the mole rat’s brain. This has real-world implications for some inflammatory conditions that involve acid build-up, such as arthritis.

Hot chocolate helps memory,¬†today’s example of correlation not equalling causation. Spotted on the ABC science news. To me, this is lightweight fluff for a slow news day or something. This study out of Swinburne Uni in Melbourne was testing if flavanols from cocoa have an effect on short-term spatial memory. It should be noted that the researchers received funding from an unnamed chocolate company, and that flavanols occur in lots of other foods too.

They ran a randomised trial where people drank a chocolatey drink while doing a memory test on a computer. No difference in accuracy was detected, but differences in brain activity were observed, suggesting that the cocoa drinkers’ brains were being more efficient. It was a small trial, and provided no definite or definitive links between cocoa consumption and improve brain function, so I won’t be racing to my local cafe for a hot chocolate hit before commencing thinking clever thoughts. Besides that, think of the calories!!

So there you have it. A few things that have interested me this week. Finally, there is also this video – it’s not science-based at all, but it certainly captured my attention.


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