News for Nerds - June 15, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 6/15/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - June 15, 2012

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we learn why older dads have healthier kids, we take a bite out of expensive cancer tests, and we take a ruler to your noggin. But first: Don't be such a myoclonic jerk.

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We’ve all been there: you’re lying in bed, slowly drifting off to sleep, and just when you begin to slide off into dreamland…BAM! Your whole body jerks awake, with a violent spasm. You’re instantly awake, wondering what just happened. And if you’re on a bus, you glance around to see if anyone’s laughing at you.

So, what DID just happen? Scientists don’t know exactly what it’s all about, but they have a pretty good idea. It’s called a hypnic jerk, a strange twitch that shakes you awake. As for what actually causes that spasm, it could be a simple misunderstanding between your body and your brain.

As you gradually slide down into the well of sleep, your muscles begin to relax, and then relax a little more. Sometimes your brain misinterprets that relaxation and think’s, “Oh no, I’m falling!” The next step is looking like an idiot.

It’s in the same arena as something called a myoclonic jerk, also referred to as Periodic Limb Movement. Besides the sensation of falling in a dream, a hiccup also qualifies as a myoclonic jerk…which I simply enjoy saying.

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Use It or Lose It. Many of us work hard to keep our bodies in decent shape as we age. But what about our brains? Is there such a thing as brain calisthenics? 

Turns out, there is. Researchers and neurologists continue to uncover evidence that even simple tasks such as writing your name backwards and upside down, or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, can extend the lifespan of your healthy brain.

This article has a long list of exercises and experiments that, if nothing else, are very interesting. But they all tie back to one crucial fact: that aging takes its toll on our brains as well as our bodies. White matter, gray matter and neurotransmitters all begin to shrink with age.

But challenging the brain in even the smallest ways, such as turning pictures upside down on your desk, stimulates neural pathways, boosting the brain's chemistry and connectivity. Read the article, and give some of the suggestions a try.

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Cancer Screening Made Simple. The trend in medical technology is toward bigger, more complex, and more expensive devices. But some medical innovators at Georgia Tech are turning that model upside down.

They've developed what seems to be a cancer-detecting breathalyzer system. It was first unveiled earlier this month at a conference in Chicago, and it's still awaiting clinical trials. But it if works as advertised, the device could play a huge role in prescreening for breast cancer and lung cancer -- and at a fraction of today's costs.

The breathalyzer works by first capturing the patient's breath in a specially designed container. If refrigerated properly, the sample can stay fresh for up to six weeks. The container is then shipped off to a lab where a chemical sensor searches for the organic compounds emitted by a body that's infected with cancer.

The test doesn't work with the same accuracy of the more involved, more expensive tests currently in place at most hospitals. But for people who can't afford the whole shebang, and for people in developing countries with no access to complex cancer screening (or, in some cases, with cultural taboos about procedures like mammograms), it could make a real impact.

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Big-Headed Americans. Check out your big brain. No, really. Check it out. It's getting bigger.

New measurements of hundreds of skulls of Americans born during the last two centuries shows that the typical skull has grown by about a third of an inch. That might not sound like much, but it's enough to accommodate roughly a tennis ball-size chunk of brain.

But before you get too worked up over how this bonus brain matter might help you solve a Sudoku puzzle faster, take heed: "I can't guess the implications of this jump in cranial size," says biological anthropologist Richard Jantz, "but other research shows a bigger cranium doesn't necessarily mean more intellect."

What makes this particularly weird is that for most of the last 5,000 or 6,000 years, head size in humans was actually decreasing. No one really understands that trend any more than they understand this sudden growth trend, but many experts speculate that it had to do with more efficient brain wiring, as well as easier access to food and safety.

I've got one more story this week, but if you want to go fetch a tape measure and wrap it around your skull, I can wait.

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'The Tony Randall Effect.' And finally, just in time for Father's Day comes a study from Northwestern University that suggests offspring of older fathers may live longer.

There is some pretty complex science behind all of this, but in a nutshell, here's the general concept: there's a certain type of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes known as telomeres. People with shorter telomeres tend to be more prone to the sorts of ill health that come along with aging, while having longer telomeres promotes slower aging.

When men wait longer to reproduce, they are more likely to pass along longer telomeres to their kids -- hence much better odds that those kids will someday live long enough to watch old reruns of I Love Lucy and to yell loudly for the neighbor boy to stay off their damn lawn. Or something like that.

Keep all this in mind when you're hastily scratching out a note of appreciation in your own dad's Father's Day card this weekend.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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