* Mind Movies * Arctic Squirrels on Steroids * Bug Bites Frog * Egg Freezing: Cheating the Clock * Science Fact, or Science Fiction: Childbirth & the Moon *


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Mind Movies

What's going on in your mind?  Dr. Jack Gallant, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley, is a step closer to being able to answer that question with his latest experiment.  He used fMRI brain scanning technology in a complicated experiment that reconstructed movies a person was watching, by observing their brain watching them.  The reconstructions were relatively crude, but represent an interesting step along the way to understanding how the brain encodes visual information, and how we might decode that brain activity - more or less reading the brain.     

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Arctic Squirrels on Steroids

squirrel_steroids.jpgcourtesy R. Boonstra
Traditional hibernation among mammals involves building up fat reserves to provide energy, as the winter months are slept away.  But Arctic ground squirrels are far from traditional.  They don't have dens, rock crevices or hollowed out trees to sleep in.  And their ability to burrow is limited by the impenetrable layer of permafrost. Plus, they must also endure temperatures as low as -23C.  Dr. Rudy Boonstra from the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, has found that Arctic ground squirrels have a unique hibernation strategy in order to cope with these hardships.  They have very high levels of androgen, mostly testosterone, that allow them to build up muscle as they prepare to hibernate.  Unlike fat, muscle can convert to glucose, which provides the necessary energy to keep them alive during hibernation.  As too much testosterone can be harmful, the androgen receptors in Arctic ground squirrels are down-regulated in tissue, except muscles, in order to avoid side-effects.  How this happens remains unknown.      

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Bug Bites Frog

bug_bites_frog.jpg Courtesy G. Wizen
Insect larvae are generally helpless prey for insectivorous predators, but Gil Wizen, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, has found one that turns the table on its attacker.  He found that the larvae of a species of Epomis beetle, an ordinary ground beetle, lures predatory amphibians by waving its mandibles and antennae.  When the amphibian prepares to strike, the beetle larvae strikes back, using its wicked double-hooked mandibles to attach to its much larger attacker, and then slowly consumes the amphibian over a period of days.   

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Egg Freezing: Cheating the Clock

Gray_ovum.pngHuman ovum illustration from Gray's Anatomy
It's been almost 30 years since the first birth of a baby from a frozen human embryo. And since then, it's become almost routine, with an estimated half-a-million babies born using that procedure.  Freezing unfertilized eggs, however, has been a much more difficult challenge. Now new developments in reproductive technology are allowing the freezing of human eggs - which has raised new medical and ethical questions, especially when it comes to women over 40.  Quirks contributor Alison Motluk has looked into the controversy.

The technique was first developed for young women with cancer. Some of her eggs would be removed before her chemo and radiation treatment (which might kill or damage the eggs), then frozen, and later fertilized and implanted when the woman was ready to have children.  But now it is being used for "social" reasons, especially by women in their late 30's and early 40's, who have not yet met their mate, and want to freeze their eggs for future use, before the eggs get too old. And that has created some controversy, especially since there is very little data on how successful the procedure is when older eggs are used.

Dr. John Jain, a Canadian infertility specialist with a clinic in Santa Monica, California, says it's important for patients to understand that egg freezing is still considered experimental, and there is no guarantee it will work, especially in women over 40. But he does offer the procedure to those women.

Dr. Laura Shanner is a bio-ethicist and Associate Professor at the University of Alberta, and she says that if a procedure is considered experimental, then it should only be offered in the context of a controlled study.

And Alison Motluk also talked to a Vancouver woman, who did not wish to be named, who has decided to freeze her eggs, despite being in her early 40's. She wants to buy herself some time, since she has not yet met the future father of her children.

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Science Fact, or Science Fiction: Childbirth & the Moon

This is another episode of our occasional feature, Science Fact or Science Fiction. From time to time, we present a commonly held idea or popular saying - and ask a Canadian scientist to set us straight on whether we should believe it or not.  And today's popular belief is - "More women go into labour during a full moon". 

To help us deliver the truth, we contacted Dr. Douglas Black, the Head of the Division of General Obstetrics and Gynecology at The Ottawa Hospital.  He says it is science fiction.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0