News for Nerds - Pee Brain Edition

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 12/13/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - Pee Brain Edition

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll sniff some aged gouda, reveal the power of maggot slime, and slim down some toddlers. But first, here are your headlines.

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One of the great breakthroughs -- and controversies -- in recent medical science is the use of embryonic stem cells to treat disease. But there's a new, unexpected source of cell material that can be used to create valuable neurons: human urine.

This new technique takes ordinary cells present in urine and transforms them into neural progenitor cells, also known as the precursors of brain cells. According to a study published in the journal Nature Methods this week, these precursor cells could help researchers to produce cells tailored to specific individuals more quickly and from more patients than current methods.

If you're a little fuzzy on what this all means, let's take a quick step back. Certain types of human cells -- such as those found in embryos, but also in blood and skin cultures -- can be 'reprogrammed' as induced pluripotent stem cells, which can go on to form any cell in the body. This has proven to be a useful tool when treating serious degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's. But some of the methods used to acquire those cells present difficult ethical questions, and not everyone agrees on whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Thankfully, the discovery that urine could be a viable source for these stem cells is encouraging. Because, to paraphrase a popular children's book, everybody pees.

- from Scientific American

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In other news this week: reading fiction is good for your brain. Don't just take it from me. Ask your friendly neighborhood neuroscientist.

Brain scans show that reading a detailed description or an evocative metaphor can trigger strong impulses in our brains and even change the way we behave. Words like 'perfume' and 'coffee' will light up your primary frontal cortex. Metaphors such as 'the singer had a velvet voice' fires up your sensory cortex. Descriptions of motion -- something like, 'Pablo kicked the ball' -- create activity in the motor cortex. The brain doesn't seem to make much of a distinction between reading about something versus actually experiencing it.

All of this is relatively old news. But the new news is that reading a novel -- where details, descriptions, and metaphors live side by side with characters' deepest thoughts and feelings -- produces a vivid simulation of reality within the complex machinery of the human brain.

Not only that, but reading novels may actually change the way we act in our daily lives. Several recent studies have shown that people who frequently read fiction are better able to understand and empathize with others. And it's not just adults. Even preschool-aged children show a similar effect.

So if you're looking for a holiday gift this year that's entertaining and useful, think about buying a book instead of a video game. In fact, I've got at least six good recommendations for you right here.

- from The New York Times

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And here are a few other fun science stories you might enjoy:

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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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