Mind over Marrowbone: Citizen Science Tests Canine Smarts

Deep Thinker?
Photo by Nathan Yergler. CC By-SA 3.0.

Want to test your dog’s thinking style? Put two treats on the ground on either side of you and point to one of them as you call. The piece gobbled first sheds light on whether your pooch is more of an independent or a social problem-solver. Dognition, a new website created by Duke University professors Brian Hare and Kip Frey uses the results of such games to collect data on various aspects of canine cognition while giving dog owners insights on how their pets think. (See here for specific instructions on the test above.)

As the website explains, citizen science allows researchers to gather large amounts of data to better understand the thinking processes of dogs across many different breeds and locations. For a fee of $39.00, dog owners can learn if their furry companion is more of an Einstein, a Stargazer, or a Socialite (or fits into one of six other profiles).

Frey teaches at Duke’s Law School and School of Public Policy. Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and founder of Duke’s Canine Cogntion Center. His new book is The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think (Dutton).

Love 2.0: It’s All in the Micro-Moments, Says Scientist

At the grocery store last night, I came across three young men in the card aisle picking out valentines for their partners. They were mocking the selections. But behind the snarky comments, I smelled panic: Which of the $3.50 sentiments lined up before them—drippy, steamy, cheesy, or downright Elizabethan—would lock in the love that they (and we all) crave? Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies the biological effects of positive emotions, would have us adopt a healthier attitude toward Valentine’s Day and love in general. I spoke to her earlier about her new book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become (Hudson Street/Penguin).

“I think that this new perspective on love will help us cut through the parts of Valentine’s Day that seem kind of difficult and forced and focus on what love really is,” she says. It’s a myth that love is “a lightning bolt that hits you one day and forever you’re in that state.” Rather, love is made of “micro-moments of shared connection,” or what she refers to as “positivity resonance.” And rather than being exclusive to a romantic partner, she points out, these moments can be experienced with all kinds of people in our lives, from our neighbors to the coworker in the next cubicle. (No jokes about The Office, please.)

Some of Fredrickson’s ideas on love and interconnectedness would nestle nicely into long-established religious traditions, and she cites various teachings in her book. But with colleagues in her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, Fredrickson goes on to measure the physical benefits of these shared micro-moments, which she likens to nutrients for the body.

In one study, published in Psychological Science and described here in The Economist, researchers taught volunteers meditation skills to help them generate more moments of positive connection. “When they do that, they experience more of them and objective [health] markers like cardiac vagal tone improve,” Fredrickson says. Now her lab is looking at gene expression and how positive connections can change the body at the cellular level to help fight disease. (See the lab’s publications page for links to more studies.)

If love is so good for us, I wondered, why do we often miss these moments of connection? Fredrickson cites our reliance on technology. These micro-moments start with trust and a real-time sensory connection. (You can’t make eye-contact when you’re texting someone.) “The other reason is time pressure,” she says. While she’s talking on the phone with me, she admits to packing her bag to get ready for work. “Having that frenetic pace of today’s contemporary society really gets in the way of slowing down enough to connect with what we could be feeling with another. It’s a casualty of our contemporary world pace. We’re racing around at the speed of the mind when it’s like we need to feel these things at the slower speed of the heart.”

To give an example of what the pace of love looks like, Fredrickson described a recent conversation with a friend who’s dealing with a cancer diagnosis. “And I was just encouraging her to slow down and take care of herself, and we were connecting over the understanding of what each other was going through—me trying to offer support and her receiving it. It was a meaningful emotional connection.”

In another example, she described a woman whose disappointments made her cynical about romantic love. “The next week she wrote me to thank me for my ideas, [saying] ‘They really freed me somehow.’” By changing her expectations about what love was, Fredrickson says, “She was able to connect with people in her everyday life.”

That’s not to leave romantic relationships out of the picture entirely. According to Fredrickson, “We all know we shouldn’t take our loving relationships for granted. We should be attending to them and trying to make our partners feel valued and cherished,” she says. “These micromoments of shared positivity [are also] the building blocks of a strong resilient marriage.”

Kindness: Doing for Others Has Benefits for Children

Helping hand.
Photo by Mandajuice. Creative Commons.

Whether they’re greeting their grandparents or helping a neighbor cross the street, pre-adolescents who perform acts of kindness may increase their well-being and their popularity, according to a study by researchers at University of California-Riverside and the University of British Columbia. Results appear here in PLOS One.

Kristin Layous, a graduate student in the psychology department at UC-Riverside, discussed the results of the study, which she conducted with S. Katherine Nelson, Eva Oberle, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl. (Lyubomirsky, her advisor, is author of the positive psychology guide The How of Happiness.)

Layous says she and her team knew from previous studies that kindness interventions were linked to greater well-being in adult populations, but they wanted to know if they would also work among pre-adolescents. It seemed a good age to try because tweens “have gained some perspective taking ability and empathy,” she says. “They are able to put themselves into their classmates’ shoes.”

They also decided to see if the students experienced gains in peer acceptance. “There is a perceived popularity, which is more akin to materialism—someone who has money or ‘rules the school’—and there is more sociometric popularity, where 9 out of 10 children in a classroom like this person. We were trying to tap into that second type of popularity [by asking] ‘Do you want to be in school activities with that person?’”

In their study, 9-to-11 year olds in 19 Vancouver classrooms were randomly assigned to either a kindness intervention or a pleasant activity. The kindness group was prompted to perform three acts of kindness each week over a four-week period. The control group was told to visit three different places each week—from the zoo to a grandparent’s house—and track their whereabouts.

Both groups saw similar improvements in well-being (according to self-reported scales), but the kindness group picked up more friends. Students in the kindness group gained an average of 1.5 friends, while control-group participants gained .68.

While the study was not set up to look at the cause of these changes, Layous speculates that they could be partly due to the activities “putting out positive energy into the classroom” and enabling students “to see more positive experiences around them.”

They plan to delve deeper into the data to see how kindness activities changed individuals’ social networks. For example, says Layous, they’d like to know: “Would one person who already has seven friends boost that up to nine? Or did the person who had zero friends get a few more? The ideal would be that it worked for everybody.”

While the “downstream” benefits of prosocial behavior (such as popularity) are interesting to her, Layous says her main focus is on general well-being. For future studies, she says, “My advisor and I are really interested in the conditions under which these activities are effective. Does it work better if they do it once a week or a couple times a week? If they start out at a certain baseline of happiness or if they have a little room for improvement?” Layous also hopes to study the effect of prosocial activities among different age groups, cultures, and life circumstances (such as among those suffering from chronic diseases).

Jurassic Music: Recreating the Ancient Sounds of Katydid Courtship

“The Serenade.” (1629) Artist: Judith Leyster. Public Domain.

One hundred and sixty-five million years ago, China’s forests were filled with the baritone serenades of male katydids. By analyzing the fossilized wings of an extinct species named Archaboilus musicus, researchers have reconstructed its acoustic signals. Their findings appear here in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Jun-Jie Gu, of Capital Normal University in Beijing, and Fernando Montealegre Zapata, of University of Bristol, led the research team.)

According to the article, most (though not all) katydid species alive today have asymmetrical forewings. Males in search of females produce noisy calls across a range of frequencies by scraping a toothed vein, called the stridulatory file, on the left wing across another vein (the plectrum) on the right wing.

A. musicus, in contrast, had large symmetrical forewings (each with a stridulatory file) that worked together to produce pure-tone “musical” songs at a low frequencies that could be heard over a long distance close to the ground. Like extant katydids which make pure-tone music, A. musicus probably did its serenading at night, the article states.

“In the darkness of the Jurassic forest, A. musicus surely experienced the dilemma of singing loud and clear, while simultaneously attempting to avoid nocturnal predators,” the researchers add. “We cannot rule out the possibility that Jurassic mammals (e.g. Morganucodon and Dryolestes) might have been predators of these insects, as they were able to hear sounds in the range of frequencies used by A. musicus.”

In a commentary for PNAS, University of Bonn paleontologist Jes Rust praised the research for showing “the great potential of paleoacoustic studies.” According to Rust, “Their results considerably enrich our imagination of Jurassic ecosystems, which is usually dominated by the popular dinosaurs. However, whereas these roaring pop stars have left the stage, the background vocals of insect ‘choristers’ are still there.”

Insect Navigation: Dung Beetles and the Starry, Starry Night

Panoramic image of the Milky Way.
European Southern Observatory/S. Brunier. Creative Commons.

Just as sailors once followed the stars to distant lands, dung beetles can use starry skies to navigate, according to an article published in the January 23 issue of Current Biology.

A research team led by Marie Dacke, a biologist at Sweden’s Lund University, conducted their experiments in the Johannesburg planetarium, which was fully darkened as well as illuminated with projections of the Milky Way and other stars.

As reported here in ScienceNews,

Dung-rolling insects are excellent for studying navigation because they collect their prized food source and single-mindedly roll it as directly as possible away from competitors and predators. Putting the beetles in weird get-ups during experiments doesn’t deter them. “They are so attached to their dung balls,” Dacke says, “that under all circumstances they just want to roll the ball in a straight line.”

via Dung beetles steer by the Milky Way | Zoology | Science News.

Dung beetle (Circellium bacchus.) There are thousands of species of dung beetles. Scarabaeus satyrus was the species used in the starlight experiment.
By Kay-Africa. Wikipedia Commons.

Immunotherapy: In a Nutshell, Possible Treatment for Peanut Allergy

Deep-fried peanuts.
By Mr. Atoz. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When our youngest daughter was a year old, we decided to introduce her to some more interesting table foods. One night at dinner, I gave her a spoonful of chicken cooked with ginger, soy sauce, brown sugar, and peanut butter. I thought she might protest. What I didn’t expect were swollen cheeks and husky breathing.

Minutes later, lights flashed in our driveway and half a dozen men in blue crammed into our living room to check our daughter’s vital signs. I was relieved, if a bit sheepish: No treatment was needed after all. But later tests revealed a mild to moderate peanut allergy, and so we joined the ranks of Epi-Pen-toting parents.

Currently there is no approved treatment for peanut allergy. As a result patients or their parents must carefully monitor diets and carry around lifesaving doses of epinephrine (used in cases of accidental ingestion to treat a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis). However, a recent double-blind, multicenter study (reported here in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology) shows that sublingual immunotherapy might be a way to prevent allergic reactions.

Dr. Wesley Burks, professor and chair of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the study’s lead author (along with Dr. David Fleischer of National Jewish Health in Denver), discussed the results with me:

In 20 percent of cases, Burks explains, children who acquire a peanut allergy in the first years of life will eventually outgrow it. But it’s hard to predict who will leave the allergy behind, or what will be the severity of side effects. “There’s certainly anxiety inherent in a diagnosis because of the [uncertaity] of what future reactions might be like,” says Burks.

“The prevalence of peanut allergies has changed so much in the last two decades that it has become more important to find a treatment,” he adds. “Only recently though has [sublingual immunotherapy (or SLIT)] been used with appropriate dosing that could be used for peanut allergy.” (SLIT has previously been used to treat a range of allergies, from milk to peaches.)

SLIT works by desensitizing the patient to the allergen over time. In this study, patients were exposed over many weeks to tiny (and gradually increasing) daily doses of peanut powder in a liquid that was squirted into the mouth and held under the tongue for two minutes before swallowing. That time in the mouth is key, explains Burks, because mucous membranes there give the allergen rapid entry into the body’s immune system.

(Subcutaneous immunotherapy, which uses injections, is another treatment option for some kinds of allergies, but it has not been found to be safe in the case of peanut. According to Burks, studies were stopped in the 1990s because of significant side effects.)

At the beginning of the SLIT study Burks took part in, 40 subjects with peanut allergy were given an oral food challenge of up to 2 grams of peanut powder to see how much they could tolerate. Then subjects were randomly assigned to receive either peanut SLIT or a placebo. At the end of a 44-week period, the patients were given another food challenge. Those who could safely consume 5 g, or at least 10-fold more peanut powder compared to their baseline, were considered “responders.” In the SLIT group, 70 percent were responders, compared to just 15 percent of the placebo group. Among responders, the median consumption of peanut powder rose from 3.5 to 496 milligrams. Following 68 weeks of treatment, median consumption climbed to 996 milligrams, or about the equivalent of three peanuts.

That doesn’t sound like much (and indeed, immunotherapy is no invitation to start snacking on Snickers bars). But it’s significant to allergy sufferers. According to Burks, an allergic reaction typically happens to less than one third of a peanut. (Trace amounts can find their way into foods prepared in factories, kitchens, or restaurants where peanuts are used. “In theory, you could take a daily dose and it could protect you from most accidental interactions,” he says.

“What we don’t know is the dosing ranges and how long to treat someone to make it permanent—or even if we can make it permanent,” Burks adds. “What needs to happen are more studies, using more people, in different dosing regimens.”

Infestation: Biopesticide Shows Promise for Bed Bug Sufferers

Discarded mattress. By Jamie Drummond. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I wanted the journalism experience. That’s why I took an unpaid internship in Washington, D.C., before my senior year of college. As an added bonus that summer, I picked up a case of head-to-toe “bird lice” from the well-traveled futon in the apartment I was subletting. (Not sure where the bird ever was.) Ever since, I have suffered a mild case of what I’ll call FTTCM—fear of tiny things crawling on me. Considering my personal history, it may not have been the best idea for me to get in touch with bedbug expert Nina Jenkins last month. But for the sake of science, I had to give her a call.

Jenkins, senior research associate in entomology, and her colleagues at Pennsylvania State University (Alexis Barbarin, formerly a postgraduate student and now a post-doc at the University of Pennsylvania, and entomology professors Edwin Rajotte and Matthew Thomas), have found a natural fungal biopesticide to deal with these pests. The results of their study on the effectiveness of Beauveria bassiana appear in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.

Because of bed bugs’ growing resistance to chemical pesticides, it has become very difficult to get rid of them, Jenkins tells me. “They’ve become a huge problem in city areas: Philadelphia, New York City, and Cincinnati are all in the news for having a high prevalence of bed bugs in hotels and private housing.” (Gulp. I lived in Philadelphia not too long ago. And so did my bed.)

The bites of bloodthirsty bed bugs itch like mosquito bites do. And though there is no evidence that these bugs transmit diseases, they are very inconvenient to have around. “I think a lot of psychological damage goes with that,” Jenkins says. (Not that I would know anything about this.)

“The key to really addressing a bed bug infestation is getting to the harborage (where they bed down), which is otherwise inaccessible to chemicals,” Jenkins explains. “There are so many little cracks and crevices where the populations can hide out. Unless you can physically get them with a chemical, they remain unaffected.”

But bed bugs walk on bent tarsi (tiny “hooks” that make it easy for them to climb up soft furniture and frolic on your futon), so very little of their body makes contact with a surface that’s been sprayed with traditional pesticides. What this means is that little pesticide residue makes it back to the harborage.

The Penn State researchers conducted their tests using an oil spray containing B. bassiana on paper and on cloth. Though the spray is invisible when dry, it distributes enough fungal spores throughout the treated material to make it highly effective against bed bugs.

Once these spores come into contact with the cuticle of the bed bug, they germinate and bore through the epidermis, gradually reaching the hemocoel (body cavity containing the digestive and blood centers), where they do their damage. In the meantime, the insects carry the spores back to their nesting sites, infecting others.

In the Penn State experiment, three groups of ten bed bugs were placed on one of the two treated surfaces or on an untreated (control) surface for one hour. All of the exposed bed bugs died within five days. (As little as a minute of exposure appears to be fatal to the bed bugs, Jenkins says.)

Since their data has been released, Jenkins says they’ve been inundated with calls from long-term care facilities and home-renters who are desperate for a natural and effective way to control bed bugs. (They’ll have to wait while Jenkins and her colleagues do more tests and look for the best ways to bring the fungicide to the marketplace.)

Don’t expect treated sheets, however. Instead, Jenkins expects that a commercially available spray would go around light switches and on baseboards and bedskirts. “This will form a barrier over which bed bugs will have to crawl to find a blood meal.”

Trying to control my own urge to itch, I ask Jenkins if the work ever bugs her. She admits that she does get that skin-crawling feeling at times when she’s working in the lab. That’s because mixed bed-bug populations are hard to spot and keep track of: The adults resemble flattened apple pits, whereas the youngest “first instar” bed bugs are “tiny little dots.”

“Our best joke,” she says, is to announce, “‘Three or four of them escaped! And we’re not sure where they are!’ Everyone freaks out.” I know how they feel.

Half-Life: When Information Becomes Outdated

I love to browse old reference books, from 19th-century dancing guides to the hulking set of 1937 Encyclopaedia Britannicas that compete for space with other estate-sale finds in my parents-in-law’s home. I imagine all the schoolkids who must have once used them for reports. And then I think of how, for all their density, the volumes are light on information that the 21st-century reader can trust. (Or, to put it another way, there are plenty of facts inside. I’m just not sure which ones are still true.)

But according to Samuel Arbesman, author of The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (Current/Penguin), information actually decays in a systematic manner.

Arbesman is an applied mathematician and expert in the field of scientometrics (which looks at the science of science), a fellow at Harvard, and a senior scholar at the Ewing-Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri.

In a New Scientist article adapted from his new book, he writes that, “In the aggregate there are regularities to the changes, and we can even identify how fast facts will decay over time. This means we don’t have to be all at sea in a world of changing knowledge.”

Using the metaphor of radioactive material, Arbesman explains how long it takes for half the information in a particular field to be disproved or replaced by new data. For example, surgery information has a “half-life” of 45 years, while physics has a “half-life” of a decade. (There are various ways to measure obsolescence, from getting experts to review the factual content of papers and books, to recording how long it takes journal articles to stop getting cited.)

Arbesman goes on to discuss how we might situate information on a spectrum, from the most rapidly expiring (think stock market movements) to the longest shelf-life (“pretty much everything the ancient Greeks wrote about geometry”). So next time I’m at my in-laws, maybe I should flip open volume E, for Euclid.

Grand Canyon: New Dating Reveals an Older Age

View, looking down, “Grand Canyon National Park,” Arizona (National Parks and Monuments series, taken 1933-1942)
Photographed by Ansel Adams. The National Archives.


A study published in the journal Science suggests the Grand Canyon may be even older than scientists previously thought. New data moves back its formation from an estimated 5 to 6 million years ago to about 70 million years ago (before dinosaurs’ extinction).

Read more details in this report on SciTech Daily.

Genome Sequencing: What’s the Cost for Knowing Clues to Baby’s Future?

Photo by: Sean Dreilinger. Creative Commons. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baby’s keepsakes: Tiny footprint, lock of hair, and a DNA sequence? As human genome sequencing grows faster and cheaper, how much should parents learn about their babies’ genetic blueprints? In this recent NPR report, bioethicists and other researchers weigh in on what might happen if whole genome sequencing becomes commonplace.

On the positive side, knowing this data could help doctors screen for numerous genetic conditions at birth (or even earlier), and take steps to improve or correct them. Dr. Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, told NPR that whole genome sequencing at birth could profoundly shape individuals’ medical care and personal decisions to “have an impact on truly lifelong health.”

However, skeptics warned that sequencing could saddle families with confusing or unwanted information:

There’s plenty of evidence that parents already often overreact to the relatively small amount of data that they’re getting from little spots of blood collected at birth. Bioethicist Mark Rothstein of the University of Louisville says the tests can lead to so-called vulnerable child syndrome.

These children “are viewed as medically vulnerable and medically frail,” Rothstein says. “And so while all the other kids are riding bikes and climbing trees, these kids are sort of sitting in a corner. So they can’t even enjoy a normal childhood.”

via Genome Sequencing For Babies Brings Knowledge And Conflicts : Shots – Health News : NPR.

On a related note, it’s interesting to see how rapidly genome-sequencing technology has developed in just the last few years. Here’s a small (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of articles on that topic:

1 machine, 4 weeks now enough to sequence human genome, ars technica, 08/10/2009

The $1,000 Human Genome: Are We There Yet? Scientific American, 01/10/2012

The $1,000 Genome, and the New Problem of Having Too Much Information, PopSci, 02/27/2012

Nanopore genome sequencer makes its debut (Technique promises it will produce a human genome in 15 minutes), Nature, 02/17/2012

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