Seniors Gain from Train-The-Brain Game * Mercenary Ants * The Encylco-pee-dia of Urine * Happy Sea Otters Means Healthy Seagrass * Life after Kepler

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NASA's Kepler mission to search for other worlds ground to a halt this summer when the spacecraft malfunctioned.  We look at Life after Kepler, and the next steps in our search for life on other planets. Plus we'll look at exciting results from a train-the-brain game for the elderly; we'll hear how mercenary ants help their hosts; we'll learn how Canadian scientists are making a big splash with urine analysis; and we'll find out how healthy sea otters lead to healthy sea grass.

 

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Seniors Gain from Train-The-Brain Game


The brain is known to lose cognitive performance with age, but it seems there is new hope that some functions can be reversed.  Dr. Adam Gazzaley, an Associate Professor of Psychology, Physiology and Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, has developed a new video game, specifically designed to train the brain with increasingly difficult multi-tasking components.  By keeping a car on the road and responding to specific signs in this 3-D video game, adults in the 60-to-80 age group improved their scores to match those of 20-year-olds, after practising for 12 hours over several weeks. But the benefits to the older brains went beyond just the skills required for playing the game. They also showed improvement in two cognitive areas not targeted by the video game - working memory and sustained attention.

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Mercenary Ants

Ant colonies are well known for having different castes that perform different duties for the group - like queens, workers, drones and soldiers.  Dr. Rachelle Adams, an Evolutionary Biologist from the University of Copenhagen, has found an ant society where this system has evolved slightly differently. A species of fungus-farming ants has outsourced colony defence to another species of ant - a kind of mercenary army to protect it against a third species of raiding ants. The mercenaries "fee" for protection is high - a share of the fungus raised by the farmers and the occasional farmer ant larva.

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The Encylco-pee-dia of Urine

Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium, copyright Myrabella
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Urine has been used for millennia to detect disease, though today physicians rarely diagnose by smell and taste, as they used to.  The full chemical complexity of urine, however, hasn't been explored until recently.  Dr. David Wishart and his colleagues have just completed a comprehensive chemical analysis of urine, and found that it contains upwards of 3000 different substances.  They think that new techniques might allow us to discover very much more from urine tests than we do currently, making possible new ways to diagnose conditions, such as cancer, earlier and less invasively. Dr. Wishart is a professor of computing science and biological science at the University of Alberta.  


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Happy Sea Otters Means Healthy Seagrass


Seagrass is found in many coastal regions around the world.  It is becoming increasing threatened by chemicals found in agricultural and urban run-off.  The result is algal blooms, which choke the seagrass and deprive it of sunlight.  Elkhorn Slough, an estuary off California's Monterey Bay, is also subjected to such chemicals, but the seagrass there is thriving.  This baffled researchers at first, but a new study by Brent Hughes, a PhD student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California Santa Cruz, has solved the puzzle.  In a ecological process known as a trophic cascade, an abundance of sea otters there starts a chain of events that results in healthy seagrass   The otters eat many crabs; the subsequent reduced number of crabs means that sea slugs - no longer depleted by crabs - flourish. The sea slugs eat the algae off the seagrass, ensuring its survival.

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Life after Kepler

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Artist's impression of an exoplanet
This summer, NASA announced that its efforts to repair the Kepler Space Telescope had come to nothing.  In the spring of this year, after four years of observations, a mechanical failure disabled the spacecraft's ability to point accurately at the patch of stars, roughly 1000 light years away, that it had been observing for signs of exo-planets.  This was a blow to Kepler scientists, like Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, a professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. However, Dr. Sasselov says there is lots left to learn in the Kepler data, and future planet-hunting missions are already on deck.  These new missions will look for planets much closer to us than Kepler found, and may pave the way to discovering if life exists on other planets.

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