Entries in Science (10)


Religious Faithful Lack Logic, Study Implies

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A rare and controversial study merging science and faith suggests that analytic thinking, a process that favors reason over intuition, promotes religious disbelief.

Canadian researchers used math puzzles and “priming,” a technique that plants subtle suggestions in pictures and text, to persuade more than 650 believers and non-believers to think analytically. They then used surveys to probe religious beliefs, from faith in God to the power of prayer.

“If you can get people to engage in analytic thinking, whether it’s by looking at pictures or showing them difficult-to-read text, analytic thinking promotes religious disbelief,” said Will Gervais, a PhD student in psychology at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study published today in the journal Science. “This indicates that analytic thinking is one of many factors affecting people’s religious beliefs.”

In the first of five tests, people who solved a math problem analytically rather than arriving at the intuitive answer were more likely to report religious disbelief. For example: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The intuitive answer is $0.10; the analytic answer is $0.05.

In the second test, subjects were randomly assigned to look at one of four images. Those who viewed Rodin’s “The Thinker,” which was previously found to prime analytic thinking, reported having weaker religious beliefs. The third and fourth tests used words like “think,” “reason,” and “rational” to prime analytic thinking, which was also linked to religious disbelief.

In the fifth test, 91 people who rated their religious beliefs on a survey in a hard-to-read font were more likely to report religious disbelief than 91 subjects given the same questions in an easy-to-read font. The difference in font is a subtler way to prime analytic thinking, Gervais said.

“If people find something hard to process, it engages analytic thinking,” he said. “It’s a neat manipulation.”

Intuitive thinking, a mental shortcut that bypasses reason, is linked to stronger religious beliefs.

“It’s largely intuitive processes that let people form religious beliefs,” said Gervais. “If you’re surrounded by a lot of other religious people publically demonstrating their faith, you’re more likely to develop those beliefs.”

The study does little to calm the culture clash between science and religion.

“Religion versus science; believers versus atheists; our evidence doesn’t say much about those debates,” said Gervais. “But it sheds light on one cognitive factor that may influence where people stand on those debates.

It also challenges the notion that religious beliefs are set in stone.

“People have this impression that they’re really core, central beliefs that don’t change. But we know people’s religious beliefs can vary across situations and across their lifespan,” Gervais said.

But devout believers may be shocked to hear their faith can wax and wane with tricky tests.

“I suppose some people might find it surprising,” Gervais said, “that really subtle experimental manipulations might be able to temporarily alter religious beliefs.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Keeping Chilly Lab Mice Warm: Key to Better Science?

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Joseph Garner imagines how much happier and healthier lab mice would be in a kinder, gentler environment than the stark cages in chilly laboratories -- and how that, in turn, might improve the outcome of research that underlies human medical advances.

In searching for “one thing we could put in every mouse cage in America that would make every mouse better off and would improve the quality of science done with every mouse,” he focused on a simple fact: mice are chronically cold and suffer from thermal stress.

That “one thing” that could be put in every cage is turning out to be shredded paper, which chilly mice use to build toasty, warm nests like the ones that wild mice build, according to a study published Friday in the journal PLoS One.

Given between a fifth and a third of an ounce of crinkly, coarse shredded paper called Enviro-dri, the mice went to work weaving “these beautiful igloos that are just incredible,” said Garner, an associate professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University in California. He conducted the research while at Purdue University in Indiana, with his then-graduate student Brianna Gaskill, now a postdoctoral scientist at Charles River Laboratories in Wilmington, Mass.

Because mice are nocturnal creatures, he said the lab mice were busy during nighttime hours in the lab, “very much like ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ They’re very naughty at night.”

Garner has devoted much of the last seven years to understanding why 90 percent of compounds that look promising in animals go on to “fail in human trials.” He’s convinced their environment is part of the answer.

A mouse living in captivity is “a little bit like you or I living in a glass house being looked after by Tyrannosaurus rex,” he suggested. And a drafty house at that. That’s pretty close to conditions for mice, whose 98.4 degree body temperature is close to the 98.6 degrees of the lab technicians who tend to them. But air temperatures in research laboratories typically are kept between 68 and 75.2 degrees, putting them in a state of “cold stress.”

Garner is among the few U.S. scientists “really generating good data to support what animals ‘need and want,’ because animals clearly have their own needs,” said Joanne Zurlo, director of science strategy at the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Without convincing proof that mouse well-being matters to scientific results, she said other scientists likely won’t buy into the idea that they need to make changes after “keeping mice in these conditions for umpteen years.”

The world’s largest breeder of laboratory mice, which has been supplying mice for the research, recognizes the important influence of laboratory conditions.

“The animal’s environment is a crucial factor in research,” said Kathleen Pritchett-Corning, director of research and professional services for Charles River Laboratories. “In research, we can control almost all aspects of an animal’s environment, but we don’t always know what’s best for the animal.”

She said the company has been “testing this material for our own use and have been very pleased with the results thus far.” She also suggested providing lab mice with nesting materials “could be a huge gain in welfare” and that other elements of lab animals’ environment are “ripe for study,” such as light levels, noise, air movement, type of bedding and feed.

“The healthier and more ‘normal’ the animal, the better the science,” said Pritchett-Corning, a veterinarian who has been working with mice for nearly 20 years. “The better the science, the more likely it is to lead to discoveries and advances that affect human health. It doesn’t matter what kind of animal it is, it deserves the best care we can provide.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Miracle Food: Can World Hunger Be Solved By Tricking Taste Buds?

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images(CHICAGO) -- Homaro Cantu's world is part kitchen, part laboratory. The Chicago chef is more mad scientist than traditional culinary artist, and he's attempting to not just create delicious meals, but to challenge the very definition of food as he toys with its flavors.

"Our goal is to expand our dictionary of what food is," Cantu told ABC News.

Cantu is ringmaster at one of the Windy City's most sought-after restaurants, Moto, a place where even the menu is edible. Take a bite, after you order, and the edible paper on a cracker tastes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"People pay a premium for Moto Restaurant because it's food that they're never going to see anywhere else," said Cantu.

Watch Homaro Cantu's TED Talk.

In Cantu's kitchen nothing is at it seems. What appear to be nachos -- chips, sour cream and ground beef -- will surprise even the most discerning of foodies.

"We basically just take the chocolate and put it in a blender and it turns into ground beef," Cantu explained. "The chips are made from corn chips, the cheese is made from Mexican sweet potatoes, and the green chile salsa is actually Mexican kiwi with some strawberry and some Mexican flan."

Last March, on the TED stage, Cantu wowed the audience by literally turning lemons into lemonade with a little pill made from a wild berry grown in West Africa. It's nicknamed the miracle berry and has a mysterious protein that temporarily inhibits the taste of sour and bitter things.

After taking the pill, members of the audience were able to bite directly into a lemon and have it taste exactly like lemonade.

Cantu believes the world can be changed through the science of taste. One of his dishes uses ingredients that are readily available for free.

"We basically take some grass and fry it. And bam, you've got yourself a dish that could actually be procured from your backyard depending on where you live," he said. "Agriculture as we know it could really be changed just by tricking our tongues."

The hope is that one day the science of taste could give starving nations something good to eat or make junk food healthy.

"So it this trendy establishment and those trends hopefully tickle down into a bigger audience," Cantu told ABC News. "We can rework it a little to make it like our junk food....If it looks good and makes you hungry, why not?"

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


US Blocks Publication of Research on Highly Contagious Bird Flu Strain

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ROTTERDAM, Netherlands) -- Researchers in the Netherlands have created a mutated, highly contagious form of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain that some fear could kill millions if it were unleashed on the general public. The U.S. government worries that publishing the methodology behind the strain's creation could heighten its potential for use as a weapon of biological warfare.

Virologist Ron Fouchier, who carried out his research at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, said in a statement that he hoped his research would assist in developing better vaccines and treatments for influenza in the future. Fouchier did his research on ferrets, whose immune response to influenza is similar to that of humans.

"We know which mutation to watch for in the case of an outbreak, and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late," Fouchier said in a statement on the medical center's website. "Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication."

The study results were to be published in the U.S. journal Science, but the National Science Advisory Board, an independent committee that advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies, reviewed it Tuesday and warned that bioterrorists could potentially misuse the published research "for harmful purposes."

Fouchier declined to comment beyond his online statements, and the Erasmus Medical Center press office referred reporters to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity's statement until further decisions had been made regarding publication of the research.

The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research, said Fouchier and his team would make changes to the manuscript before it was published in scientific journals.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Israelis Create Rodent With Robot Brain

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(TEL AVIV, Israel) -- In the technological journey toward artificial intelligence, Israeli researchers have made the next giant leap: the RoboRat.

Matti Mintz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his fellow scientists have built a rodent-sized artificial cerebellum that when implanted onto the skull of a rat with brain damage, allows him to function normally again.

The cyborg cerebellum consists of a computer chip that is electrically wired into the rat’s brain with electrodes.  Since the cerebellum is normally responsible for coordinating movement, this chip was programmed to take in sensory information from the body, interpret it, and communicate messages back out to the brain stem and in turn, the rest of the body.

To test the computer chip brain, scientists conditioned a rat to blink whenever it heard a tone. When the researchers disabled the rat’s cerebellum, however, the rat could no longer coordinate this behavior.  Once the artificial cerebellum was hooked up, the rat went back to blinking at the sound of the beep.

“It’s proof of concept that we can record information from the brain, analyze it in a way similar to the biological network, and return it to the brain,” Mintz, who presented the work this month at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK, told NewScientist.

Though scientists have successfully wired artificial limbs to the brain to restore function, the days of a full-on human cyborg brain implant are far off, researchers say.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Wash. Boy, 11, Recovers From Flesh-Eating Bacteria: Miracle of Science?

Chad Baker/Photodisc/Thinkstock(SEATTLE) -- In 2006, Jake Finkbonner almost died of a flesh-eating bacterial infection. His family believes he survived because of a modern-day miracle, which the Vatican is investigating as it considers a Native American who lived three centuries ago for sainthood.

While Jake's survival was a reason to be joyous and grateful, infectious disease experts said it was more likely due to the medical and surgical attention he received, and not because of a miracle.

Five years ago, Jake, then 6, contracted a flesh-eating bacterial infection when he cut his lip during the final game of his basketball season.

The aggressive bacteria, strep A, had entered into Jake's bloodstream through the small cut, and doctors said he was fighting necrotizing fasciitis, a rare but very severe type of bacterial infection that can destroy muscles, skin and underlying tissue.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent to 15 percent of patients with invasive group A streptococcal disease die, and about 25 percent of patients with necrotizing fasciitis die from their infections.

Jake was treated in the trauma unit at Seattle Children's Hospital by Dr. Craig Rubens, a renowned pediatric infectious disease specialist who suspected Jake had been infected with strep A.

Doctors said that it was difficult to stay ahead of the infection, and Jake's physical state worsened, KOMO reported.

"It got to the point where we called in a priest to give his last rites," Jake's mother, Elsa Finkbonner, told KOMO.

The Rev. Tim Sauer arrived and encouraged the family to pray to God through the intercession of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who lived more than 300 years ago. A Native American who converted to Catholicism, Tekakwitha had smallpox, which had left her face scarred. But her scars disappeared after she died, according to legend. Tekakwitha, beatified in 1980, is on the pathway to sainthood.

Sauer told NPR that he thought of appealing to Tekakwitha because, like Jake, she also contracted a disease that left her face scarred, and Jake was also of Native-American ancestry.

As his condition grew dire, Jake recalled what he thought would be his final hours.

"I went and saw God up in heaven, and I asked if I could stay in heaven because it was a beautiful place," Jake told KOMO. "But he refused to let me because he said my family needed me down here on Earth."

The day that Jake's classmates prayed for him and a relic of Tekakwitha was given to the family was the same day the bacteria stopped spreading.

Now, five years later, Vatican officials are investigating the case to see whether Jake's recovery was a miracle. The Rev. Peter Paul Pluth, who is helping to coordinate the investigation, said it's a detailed process.

"It has to be rigorous," he told NPR, "because we do not want to submit to the pope a statement unless we are absolutely, morally certain that this case merits to be approved by him a miracle by God."

"He was extremely fortunate to be in an outstanding hospital receiving outstanding medical treatment," said Dr. Stanford Shulman, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Craig Rubens is an outstanding pediatric infectious disease specialist and an expert on group A strep infections. I think the fact that he was involved shows Jake really did get truly outstanding care."

And Dr. Marcus Zervos, chief of the department of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said that while necrotizing fasciitis is a very serious infection, it is treatable.

Zervos said he does believe in miracles, and that God can work through hospitals, physicians and traditional medical care.

"But when I see something like this, I know it can be explained through the usual medical care that we give the patient through good ICU care or good antibiotics and supporting complications," continued Zervos.

Zervos said the story is interesting and important to infectious disease news, and adds to the conversation of when miracles and science collide.

"We've made many successes in treatments of these diseases and preventing their spread," said Zervos. "What would really be a miracle is if we could eliminate the infection all together."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio 


Wasting Time on the Internet Makes You More Focused

Getty Images(LOS ANGELES) -- According to KABC-TV/DT, scientists at the University of Copenhagen conducted a study on two groups of workers to show that wasting time on the Internet can make you more focused.

The workers watched a video of people passing a ball back and forth. One group was then shown a funny online clip while the other group returned to work.

The study showed that the first group made fewer mistakes when asked to recall the number of times the ball was passed.

The researchers concluded that workers are more motivated and focused when allowed to use the Internet freely.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


New Study Shows Age Affects Us All

Comstock/Getty Images(AMES, Iowa) -- If you thought the aging clock ticked differently for humans than it does for animals, think again! It has been believed for a long time that humans aged slower than most animals due to the long life spans and access to modern medicine. However, a multi-species study in the journal Science compares the human aging patterns with those of chimps, gorillas and other primates.

The study suggests that the pace of human aging may not be so unique after all. The researchers combined data from long-term studies on seven species of wild primates, such as monkeys from Costa Rica, baboons from Kenya and chimpanzees from Tanzania, and compared them with those of humans. The important finding: The aging rates were similar for both primates and humans. They also found males had higher age-specific mortality than females across most of the primate species. However, there was an interesting exception to males dying at a younger age. The males did not die earlier than the females in a species of monkey from Brazil where males do not compete with each other for access to mates. This suggests that in other primates maybe males die faster because of stress and strain of competition. The authors point out that looking at other primates would definitely help us understand the factors that govern the maximum life span.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio                                                                                                                                                     


Genetically Modified Chickens Stop Bird Flu Spread

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The idea of tweaking genes for healthier, tastier or more abundant food makes some people uneasy. But what if genetically modified food could help prevent the spread of a deadly disease, saving human and animal lives as well as money?

According to a study published in Science, genetically modified chickens could stop the bird flu virus -- specifically the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain -- in its tracks.

"The chickens can be infected, but they don't pass the virus on to other chickens in the flock," said study co-author Professor Helen Sang from The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.

Bird flu outbreaks in the U.S. are rare and involve viral strains that generally affect birds. But over 400 human cases of H5N1 have been reported in more than a dozen countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 60 percent of these have been fatal.

Although there's no sign of H5N1 in the U.S., the country still feels the fury of bird flu. The virus is transmitted to chickens by wild birds, forcing farmers to slaughter entire flocks. So while it hasn't threatened public health, bird flu continues to fuel significant animal welfare worries and economic woes.

But given the logistical challenges of replacing current flocks with the flu-fighting variety -- not to mention mixed feelings about genetically modified food -- the GM approach to beating bird flu may be hard to get off the ground.

"Replacing the world's chicken population with genetically modified chickens wouldn't be cheap. It looks good on a drawing board, but it might not fly," said William Schaffner, chair of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "There are lots of great ideas out there, but the filter of realty whittles them down pretty quickly."

But as poultry farming becomes more centralized, farmers are beginning to get their stock from a few, large suppliers, according to Sang.

"I think it would be very hard to get to the backyard chickens in many of the affected countries," Sang said. "But the majority of the poultry raised are coming from a small number of breading companies and producers who could choose to incorporate the genetic modification into their breeding program."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Writing Can Help Avoid Choking Under Pressure

Photo Courtesy - Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Jasmin Sultana, 24, of Queens, N.Y., knows only too well what it means to choke under pressure.

The first time she took her driving test, tears welled up in her eyes and she could not see the road. She pulled over mid-test, stopped the car, and told the tester, "I just can't do this."

"Even though I was prepared for it, leading up to it I was really sweaty," said Sultana. "I started to feel nervous, and during the test I started crying."

The second and third time she took the test, Sultana could feel her stress level building. Again, she choked.

"I just couldn't concentrate," she said. "It became such a long process to pass this test."

Sultana was wrapping up her final college year before she got the nerve to try it again. This time she brought a friend along. Right before the test, her friend assured her there was nothing to worry about.

Sultana thought about failure, she told her friend. She thought about what her tester thought about her. She thought taking a deep breath to quell the anxiety won't work for her. But she also thought, "I've got to pass this thing." She didn't want to take this test again.

"Telling someone put things in perspective for me, that it's just a test that I've been prepared for," said Sultana, who went on to pass the test.

Letting out all of her fearful thoughts before test time may have done the trick, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science. The study suggests that simply writing about your anxiety just a few minutes before a high-stakes event can help you perform significantly better.

Researchers conducted four separate studies that focused on test-taking anxieties of high school and college students. Before giving the students a test, researchers assigned different groups of students with high performance anxiety to either write down their anxieties about taking the upcoming test, write freely about any topic, or not write at all.

"I am afraid I am going to make a mistake," wrote one student in the expressive writing group.

"I just want to stop thinking about how I am going to fail," another student wrote.

The study found that those who wrote about their test anxiety in some cases received a whole grade letter higher than those who wrote about an unrelated event, or did not take the time to write.

"It's really a counterintuitive finding -- that dwelling on your worries can have a positive impact," said Sian Beilock, an associate professor in the department of psychology in The University of Chicago and co-author of the study.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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