The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include the epidemic calendar, what the sound of a sunrise on Mars is like and how your brain can inhibit previously planned actions.
By Grace Chan
Calendar of epidemics
We always know that we need to be careful to not get the flu during winter. A recent study by Dr Micaela Martinez shows that outbreaks of other infectious diseases, from gonorrhoea to Zika, are also prone to seasonal changes. Dr Martinez collected information on 69 different infectious diseases and created an “epidemic calendar”. She suggests that each infectious disease has its own window of occurrence during the year. For example, chickenpox outbreaks occur each spring and polio tends to happen every summer.
Four main factors, such as environmental factors and host behaviour, are responsible for driving the seasonality observed in infectious diseases. Environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity, can affect the transmission of specific diseases, making an influenza outbreak more favourable during the winter months. On the other hand, the outbreak of some infectious diseases, such as measles are driven by host behaviours, as measles tend to occur during the school year when children have more contact with one another. Preliminary work has even suggested that HIV-AIDS has a seasonal element. By understanding the driving forces behind individual infectious diseases, scientists can design ways to prevent outbreaks.
Read more about this story here.
“Alexa, play ‘A Sunrise From Mars’….. “
Have you ever imagined what a sunrise on Mars sounded like? You don’t have to imagine it anymore, because researchers at the Anglia Ruskin University have managed to do that. To celebrate the 5000th sunrise image captured by the robotic exploration rover, Opportunity, researchers have created a two-minute piece, called “Mars Soundscapes” from the image.
Using a technique called data sonification, they scanned the image pixel by pixel from left to right, taking into the account of the brightness and colour of each pixel. Combining that information with terrain elevation of Mars, they were able to use special algorithms to assign specific pitch and melody to individual elements. The dark background produces slower and quieter harmonies, whereas the sunrise produces brighter and higher sounds. The resulting piece was actually quite hauntingly beautiful. Since 2004, the opportunity has been providing valuable photographic data on Mars for NASA, but has recently lost communication after it was swallowed by a giant sandstorm, Hopefully, it will come back soon to “produce” more songs for us!
Animals stop doing certain actions to prevent the potential undesirable outcomes, and this ability to do so is called response inhibition. Response inhibition is often affected in neurological diseases with dopaminergic dysfunctions, such as Parkinson’s disease. Understanding how the brain can cancel a planned or ongoing action could help treat those diseases.
To dissect how the brain achieves this stop signal, researchers from the University of Tsukuba have carried out a study which involves analysis of gaze fixation in monkeys. Two monkeys were placed in front of a computer screen and they were trained to redirect their gaze towards the targets shown on the screen. They were also trained to not redirect their gaze when specific signals were shown to them. When they measured the neuronal activity of the monkeys, they found that a specific subset of dopaminergic neurons was active when the monkeys resisted the urge to redirect their gaze. It has also been shown that the dopaminergic system is responsible for this response, as blocking the system impaired the ability for the monkeys to resist the urge to redirect their gaze.
The team also found that dopaminergic neurons in the specific brain region, substantia nigra, are key in the prevention of pre-planned action. We are now beginning to understand how previously planned actions were inhibited in the brain and we can now try to target those specific neurons, to help treat conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
Click here to read more about this study.