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10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

When the next natural disaster strikes, squads of trained cockroaches may come to rescue you.
 
 
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So this week I came into one of my freelance jobs 90 minutes earlier than I should have, forgot the dates of two meetings and absent-mindedly put my key into the door of the wrong car necessitating a pricey call to a locksmith. Nobody could be happier than I to find that scientists have been able to implant memories into the brains of mice. Maybe one day they can implant some more memory in me.

1. Mice memories

Actually, these mice memories weren’t quite like the extra memory you put in a computer, nor were they memories of happy Christmases past or who shot JR or anything like that.  Medical Daily’s Makini Brice reports that Professor Ben Strowbridge and Robert Hyde of Case Western University attempted to create a declarative memory, the type you use when remembering a phone number or other simple facts as opposed to remembering a skill (implicit memory); they “isolated rodent tissue to form a memory in which one of four neural pathways was activated. The neural circuits located in the hippocampus maintained the memory of input for 10 seconds.”

Another recent study by professors at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has found how the brain converts short-term memories into long-term memories, “which can be accessed months or years after their implantation.” By studying how memory works in the brain, researchers hope to better understand diseases such as Alzheimer’s. 

Perhaps I should be horrified in some future-phobic way about the implantation of memories in the brain. But I’m looking on the bright side. Today it’s 10-second mouse-memories to identify specific neural pathways; tomorrow we’re saving time and money on travel by getting memories of fabulous European getaways implanted in our heads. To say nothing of the possibilities for the adult entertainment industry. 

2. Otterly adorable and totally green

I even forgot that instead of such weighty matters as those above I wanted to start out this week with something 100% charming: otters. They’re adorable, especially when they’re holding handsin South Park episodes, and talking about  smashing clams on their tummies. N ow, it turns out, they’re quietly doing their bit for the environment.

Kelp forests absorb a lot of greenhouse gases. Sea urchins eat up a lot of kelp. Sea otters eat up a lot of sea urchins. By eating up the sea urchins the otters are helping kelp forests to flourish. Kate Andries from National Geographic reports on a study which found that, “ An otter-assisted kelp forest can absorb as much as 12 times the amount of C02 [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere than if it were subject to ravenous sea urchins," and while it might not exactly be the key to climate-change reversal it’s a help to the ecology of the areas the sea otters live in. 

"The general phenom in which the interactions between species are linked to the carbon cycle," said James Estes, co-author of the study, "is going to be very important."

And cute. Don’t forget cute. 

3. Just don’t say, “And step on it!”

The otter story is a nice example of how the natural balance works. It’s good to protect and respect all creatures -- a philosophy it’s easy to forget when it comes to cockroaches. Somehow it never seems like a bad idea to smash them. Or to outfit them with tiny backpacks and censors and send them on dangerous and important missions via remote control. 

Remote-control cockroaches are not the dream of some super-bright-and-slightly-disturbed little kid. CNet’s Amanda Kooser reports that researchers at North Carolina State have taken a wireless receiver and a lightweight chip -- the whole unit weighs only .02 ounces, writes Lee Rannals of redOrbit -- and been able to connect a microcontroller to a cockroach’s antennae and cerci (sensory organs like motion detectors on the roach’s tummy). When those wires move it makes the bug move thinking a predator is threatening. The wires attached to the antennae “create small electrical charges into the insect’s neural tissue, which is what helps to steer the cockroaches,” Rannals writes. The researchers hope to use the little creatures to go into disaster sites, like areas hit by earthquakes, to find survivors in hard-to-reach places.

 
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