Getting Serious About Play, Amazon Ants, Manipulating Malaria, Erasing Fear, Limerick Contest Winners

 

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Getting Serious About Play

kids_playing.jpg copyright Artaxerxes, by-sa-3.0

Play is one of those activities that seems to be both universal and instinctive. As far as we know, all children play, no matter what culture or country they come from. And many adults continue to play as they grow older. But some scientists are asking, why? What is the role of play in human development? What happens when children are deprived of play? Freelance science journalist Alison Motluk explores these questions with the following experts:

Dr. Stuart Brown is a psychiatrist and President of the National Institute for Play, in Carmel Valley, California. He believes play is a basic human drive, like the drive to sleep or eat. He says animal studies have shown that the drive to play seems to live in the same part of the brain stem as the sleep drive, which houses survival and more primal requirements for life. He also thinks that play is important for adults, too - the highly playful adult is generally the more successful, more emotionally balanced. The play-deprived adult is often more rigid and narrow and not much fun to be around.

Dr Sergio Pellis, a Principal Investigator at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, has done studies on rats, where he deprives young pups of play. He found that a part of the prefrontal cortex, the brain area right behind your forehead, does not develop normally. This area is important for certain abilities, such as making social decisions and reading social cues - a matter of life or death in an adult rat.

Dr Tony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, who's a leading play researcher, isn't sure that play actually serves any purpose. But if it does, he thinks it may make us more flexible, more creative, more able to adapt to changed circumstances, and to react in novel ways.

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Amazon Ants

amazon_ant.jpg Mycocepurus smithii, photo by April Nobile, copyright California Academy of Sciences, (cc-by-nc-sa-1.0)

A female fungus-farming ant needs a male like a fish needs a bicycle, according to work by Dr. Anna Himler, an entomologist and a research associate in the Postdoctoral Excellence in Research and Training program at the University of Arizona. These ants seem to have abandoned sex - and the production of male ants - entirely and reproduce by cloning themselves. While other insects can reproduce asexually, Mycocepurus smithii is the only ant, and one of the few animals, that has abandoned sex entirely. In doing so, they may have accelerated their own extinction, as asexuality is considered to be a risky life plan.

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Manipulating Malaria

anopheles.jpg Anopheles mosquito enjoying a blood meal

Malaria is a devastating disease that kills about a million people every year, and causes debilitating illness to many more. The main weapon against malaria has been mosquito control - using insecticides to kill off the mosquitos that carry the parasite. Unfortunately, these poisons can have significant environmental impacts, and insects tend to evolve resistance to them, which makes them less effective over time. Dr Andrew Read, a Professor of Biology and Entomology at Penn State University, thinks we can exploit what we know about the life cycle of both the mosquito and malaria parasite, to use pesticides smarter, and maybe find some smarter pesticides. The trick is targeting only the older mosquitos, which are the ones carrying infectious parasites, but are also the most vulnerable.

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Erasing Fear

mice.jpg copyright Polarqueen, GNU FDL

Dr. Sheena Josselyn, a neuroscientist with Sick Kids Hospital and the University of Toronto, has figured out a way of erasing a fearful memory in mice. First, she trained them to associate a tone with a mild foot shock, so that they would freeze in fear when they heard the sound. Then, she targetted a small number of cells in an area of the brain known as the amygdala and, when she presented the tone again, she found the mice no longer seemed to be afraid of it. Dr. Josselyn says no other memories seem to have been affected and, remarkably, the mice were able to re-learn the fear-conditioning task again with no problem. This is the first time researchers have been able to selectively remove a specific memory from the brain.

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Limerick Contest


The results from our Limerick contest in which we invited listeners to send in their limericks on subjects astronomical. The ten best will receive a Galileoscope, which will allow them to see the night sky as Galileo might have done 500 years ago.

To read the winners, click HERE.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein.
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