10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

Are we on the verge of a vaccine for cocaine addiction and Facebook for animals?

Photo Credit: tlorna/Shutterstock.com

1. Facebook for tits

It’s sweeps week here at 10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries and because fate loves me it has handed me the gift of a story about wild great tits. 

No lie: it’s a bird species around which Oxford researchers have constructed a “Facebook for animals” to help them observe the birds’ social behavior, which is important to find out things like their mating and eating habits and how disease is spread. Science Daily reports that Oxford University researchers recently tested a new method of observation that tells them where the birds go and how they spend their time…things you could observe about a person from studying their Facebook page. The data was collected by transponders attached to the birds during two breeding seasons and researchers could tell from collected information which birds regularly looked for food together or were starting the mating process. Just like you can on Facebook.

Great tis have a habit of pecking open milk bottles to get at the cream inside, something they learned to do en masse in Britain rather quickly -- how information spreads among animals is another area of study that will be helped by this approach, which I have no choice but to call Facebook-for-tits. 

Sigh. See how dreams come true…but never quite how you planned? 

2. Reptile sex to die for

The fossil record can also tell something about animal life, especially if the animal is fossilized during a particular activity. As Jennifer Viegas of Discovery News reports, fossils seldom preserve actual behaviors, though fossils of fish who died choking on large prey and fighting dinosaurs have been found and now researchers have discovered animals fossilized while having sex 47 million years ago, sex so good they didn’t realize they were swimming in poison while they were at it. They’re the first known mating fossils.

I dunno, I hate to burst anyone’s bubble but I live in Florida -- fossils having sex is pretty routine around here.

There were nine mating turtle couples found at the Messel Pit Fossil Site between Darmstadt and Frankfurt, Germany and though I was joking about them having sex so good they didn’t realize they were in a poisonous volcanic lake, it could be true. Walter Joyce, a researcher at the University of Tübingen says that some animals go into a trance-like state during sex or egg-laying and that the turtles probably started in “habitable water” but drifted farther into the lake where “their skin probably started to absorb poisons from the build-up of volcanic gases or decay of organic matter.”

I can totally see this happening. I’ve certainly been so doped up on love/lust that the world could end around me and I wouldn’t notice. What better way to make your exit than in your lover’s arms. Flippers. On their back. You know what I mean. 

3. Octopussy

They were in the anatomical ballpark, but things certainly looked a lot less romantic for a pair of mismatched marine creatures who starred in the story that made my week: Octopus Hitches a Ride on Dolphin's Genitals.

“I tried that but we got a divorce,” you say, or “Talk about Octopussy...” and you haven’t even seen the picture yet. Click the story title, finish laughing and then provide your own caption, something like “She wanted surgery to get testicles, not tentacles,” or “That’s no octopus. I got one of those from a sex toy store. It sucked,” or “Go ahead and laugh but everyone on the beach will be wearing them this summer,” or “If itching persists see your doctor. If tentacles appear, JESUS CHRIST, CALL AN EXORCIST!”

Thank you to Stephanie Pappas of LiveScience for bringing us the tale of this enterprising octopus that lodged itself in the genital slit of a bottlenose dolphin in the Ionian Sea (we’ve all woken up with that problem, right? Oh, just me? Okay). The happy snap was taken by Joan Gonzalvo of the Ionian Dolphin Project who told New Scientist he thought the dolphin may have tried to eat the octopus, which evidently lodged itself in the dolphin's nether regions (both male and female dolphins have genital slits) as a means of escape. 

Octopuses are usually spectacular at camouflage but “dolphin crotch” must not be in their repertoire. And thankfully so because this one of the best pictures I’ve seen in ages. 

The dolphin shook off the uninvited guest and swam off, evidently undisturbed…probably because the animal knew his/her close encounter was leaked to the public as if he/she were some common millionairess

3. Can vaccine make cocaine take a powder?

I wish I could shake off intimate encounters that easily. I’m terrible at it. When relationships shatter I often do, too. I once emailed a scientist who was working on a vaccination against cocaine and nicotine addiction and asked, since the same parts of the brain are active in romantic rejection and profound cocaine addiction, is it possible to vaccinate against love as it might be against cocaine, thinking that might be one way around post-love trauma.

He said no.

So maybe lovers just have to work it out themselves, but vaccinating against the effects of cocaine made another advance recently when researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College working on an anti-cocaine-addiction vaccine developed a test to show via molecular imaging whether the vaccine is working, reports Roxanne Palmer from the International Business Times.

Cocaine makes you high by crossing the blood-brain barrier, stimulating areas associated with the reward/pleasure chemical dopamine, binding to its transporters and keeping it from leaving the synapses between neurons, causing intense euphoria, says the Society for Nuclear Medicine. The way the vaccine works, is that it contains a piece of common cold virus attached to a cocaine-like molecule; the immune system produces antibodies to fight the virus. “Thus alerted to cocaine, the immune system prevents the drug from crossing the blood-brain barrier, eliminating the high,” that happens when cocaine is able to bind to those transporters, Roberts writes. 

Using PET scans and tracking a molecular imaging probe the researchers could see that the basal ganglia “are lit up like fireworks in a vaccinated brain, but are dimmer in the addicted brain because the imaging probe must compete with cocaine already interacting with dopamine transporters,” says the SNM.

It’s certainly a fascinating approach to treating addiction and will help a lot of people, but I’m telling you scientists: find drugs that counteract heartbreak. Pop music will suffer from the sudden lack of misery, but you’ll become rich enough to make Mark Zuckerberg look like the Little Match Girl. 

4. The world weights

Actually, if you wanted to lessen the ill effects of a typically pleasurable substance, how about taking the fattening effect out of certain foods? 

True, lots of fake foods have tried, the most famous being artificial sweeteners and the fat substitute Olestra, which was big a few years back but ended in the marketing nightmare phrase “anal leakage.” Frankly I ate a lot of Wow! chips and never suffered any embarrassing results except just now admitting that I ate a lot of Wow chips. TreeHugger reported in 2009 that Olestra was being used to make eco-friendly paint and is also still used in food products

Anyway, the point is we still need help reducing because the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and other body parts, literally. We weigh so much it amounts to having extra people on the planet.

LiveScience’s Wynne Parry reports that scientists took the collective weight of the world population and found it to be 316 million tons, 17 million of which is excess weight which amounts to “an extra 242 million people of average body mass on the planet.” A BBC story by Matt McGrath shows a chart of the heaviest and lightest countries -- the U.S. tops the obesity and overweight charts, followed by Russia and Egypt.

Extra weight is equivalent to extra people because more body mass takes more energy, “therefore,” Parry writes  “as someone's weight goes up, so do the calories they need to exist.” 

“It’s not how many mouths there are to feed. It’s how much flesh there is on the planet,” Professor Ian Roberts, one of the study researchers of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the BBC.

What it sounds like, in my unscientific parlance, is that if you consume enough for two people you might as well be two people, at least in terms of resources. 

"We often point the finger at poor women in Africa having too many babies," says Roberts. "But we've also got to think of this fatness thing; it's part of the same issue of exceeding our planetary limits.”

Point taken...followed by brisk walk and aerobics class.

Actually, Roberts says, playing the blame game doesn’t help.

"One of the problems with definitions of obesity is that it fosters a 'them and us' ideal. Actually, we're all getting fatter." 

Nice of him to say, but Parry reports that, “North America has 6 percent of the world population but 34 percent of biomass due to obesity. Meanwhile, Asia has 61 percent of the world population but just 13 percent of biomass due to obesity.” Roberts points to Japan as an example of the fact that you can be “lean without being really poor.” In other words being able to consume too much doesn’t mean we have to. 

5. Disney goes universal

Of course you could always do that grade-school thing of saying what weight you’d be if the gravity was reduced instead of your Cakester intake. (“I weigh 34 pounds…on the moon!”) Go to Mercury, for example, and not only will you be at your ideal pixie weight but you’ll get to see a cluster of craters that looks remarkably like Mickey Mouse. 

“Forget Pluto, Mickey Mouse lives on Mercury,” says Space.com of the craters, seen here as photographed by NASA’s Messenger spacecraft. Mickey’s head is about 65 miles wide; later impacts made the “ears.” 

Theory: the same aliens that made the Nazca lines also made the Mickey head. They went to the zoo and then to Disney World, forgot their camera and just drew pictures instead. 

After all, if you’re going to travel you’re going to want to immortalize your vacation somehow and those aliens must have come really far. Except for Earth you could end up traveling all the way to Titan, one of dozens of moons of Saturn, to find the possibility of life.

Maggie McGee writes in Nature that Titan is the only “solid object” that circulates liquids in this cycle like earth -- there are numerous lakes and rivers of methane at its polar regions that act like water does on our planet. They evaporate and become atmosphere and then fall as liquid. Now it appears there are “oases” of hydrocarbon lakes under the surface of it in its dry region which might be a “crucible for life” on the cold, distant moon.  

"There might be a kind of life that works in liquid hydrocarbons," says astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine (who was not involved in the study) and the subsurface oases could expand the possibilities of life on Titan.

Not very much of that dry region has been analyzed at high resolution -- only 17% -- but it’s always intriguing to know the possibility for life exists elsewhere and Lunine got wonderfully poetic about it: "There's a place on Titan named Xanadu, and if you go back to the Coleridge poem on Xanadu, he talks about 'caverns measureless to man'.” Lunine said that he would like to find such caverns filled with methane on Titan.

Charming, right? But if it’s too frothy for you, watch this clip from the great British TV quiz show QI where instead of poetry about Titan’s methane lakes they make fart jokes. You’ll get addicted to QI. There’s no vaccine. You’re welcome. 

6. Lego my plastic skin suit!

Some people are squeamish when it comes to gas humor and other impolite aspects of human anatomy. For them Lego anatomy may be more tolerable.

Actually, for anyone, Lego anatomy -- artist Jason Freeny’s interpretation what an 18-inch Lego man might look like under his plastic skin -- is jaw-droppingly cool. Here are some of Freeny’s sculptures via Robert T. Gonzales at io9, on his Facebook page and on his Web site you can see what some other pop culture icons, like Hello Kitty and that one mouse from Mercury would look like if you folded their skin back and saw what was inside.

What’s inside are painstakingly crafted skeletons, guts and teeth, beautiful, clever and definitely not as ooky as human bodies. If only our pieces-parts snapped on and off for easier viewing and replacement.  

7. Breast milk blocks oral transmission of HIV

The human body can also do some pretty amazing things. It brings us great pleasures, often heals itself nicely and now there’s a study showing that human breast milk has the ability kill HIV and block its oral transmission in humanized mice, as reported by Science Daily.

The mice in the breast milk study have had human bone marrow, liver and thymus tissues introduced to them and are thus called BLT mice; sounds like something you’d find in a filthy diner, true, but their fully functioning human immune system gives researchers greater opportunity to study human infections. 

J. Victor Garcia of the UNC Center for Infectious Diseases and the UNC Center for AIDS Research, “pioneered the 'BLT' mouse model,” SD says and was also the senior author of the breast milk research study. The researchers on that team determined that the BLT mice had the same cells that enable oral transmission of the virus and “transmitted the virus to the mice through these pathways.” But when the mice were given the virus in breast milk from HIV-negative women, the virus could not be transmitted.

"This study provides significant insight into the amazing ability of breast milk to destroy HIV and prevent its transmission," Garcia said. "It also provides new leads for the isolation of natural products that could be used to combat the virus.” 

That sounds like the beneficial properties of breast milk can be synthesized into a form that would allow you to get those benefits without having to go to their source which, let’s face it, might be a little socially awkward for adults. 

Though a girlfriend of mine did recently announce that she had tasted her own breast milk and it was really sweet. 

Intriguing (one can’t help wondering “What, like Vanilla Coffee-mate?)...and an excellent thing to say if you ever want to bring a conversation to a dead halt in 10 words or less. 

8. Progression on aggression

So that’s one of the ways the human body can be amazing. One of the ways it can be tricky is when our brain function is off-kilter, causing us to behave in ways that just aren’t beneficial. I’ve written before about sci-fi movie elements that have been developed in real life, like the Sonic Screwdriver on Dr. Who, the light-saber in Star Wars and the needle-free injections on Star Trek. This next bit of research might have made for a kinder, gentler version of A Clockwork Orange.

In that futuristic film, aversion therapy is used to stop a violent young man from being so aggressive (it doesn’t quite work out). It isn’t aversion therapy but another approach to pathological aggression may be on the way. Medical Express reports that scientists from USC and Italy have found a brain receptor that “malfunctions in overly aggressive mice.” This receptor also exists in humans and when the researchers shut it down in the mice the aggression disappeared. 

“The findings are a significant breakthrough in developing drug targets for pathological aggression, a component in many common psychological disorders including Alzheimer's disease, autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” ME says. 

Previous research indicated that the lack of a specific enzyme -- monoamine oxidase A or MAO A -- was linked to pathological aggression. The researchers studied low MAO A levels and “also the interaction of genetics with early stressful events such as trauma and neglect during childhood.” Both things are a basis for aggression and lead study author Marco Bortolato says “the combination of the two factors appears to be deadly: it results consistently in violence in adults."

They found that a specific brain receptor in the prefrontal cortex of the aggressive mice could only be activated by a lot of electrical stimulus and even then only for short periods of time; the discovery that blocking this receptor moderates aggression is a huge breakthrough, Bortolato says. Researchers are now “studying the potential side effects of drugs that reduce the activity of this receptor.”

“Hulk smash? Maybe not anymore…” is how the headline begins on the ME piece, and while it opens an intriguing can of philosophical worms, we’re used to controlling other behaviors with drugs, so could “the old ultraviolence” one day be...old? 

10. You love this column and want to share it 

Last, but not least, another thing that influences our behavior is our perceptions. A story on PsyPost expounds on the research of several psychological scientists about the power of suggestion, how and how much it influences our lives which, they conclude (though with the caveat of more study being needed) is probably more than we think. 

I recently saw the Amazing Kreskin, the world-renowned mentalist and talk show staple who talked a lot about the power of suggestion and demonstrated it through some hilarious audience hypnosis. I love Kreskin and I’m sure YOU LOVE him, too, but haven’t thought about him much until reading THIS COLUMN. WILL SHARE more about the show ON ALLmySOCIAL NETWORKS so you can share it too. YOUR FRIENDS WILL LOVE IT; it really showed how the power of suggestion works. 

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.