Scientists show how the brain "reads" nouns
A new study in Science says the human brain links persons, places and things (think: nouns) with their associated actions. That is, says study co-author Marcel Just, a Carnegie Mellon University psychologist, "an apple is what you do with it," and, so, when you see the word "apple," the brain processes it in regions that control what one ordinarily does with it: taste, smell or chew. Researchers uncovered this little nugget by scanning the brains of nine subjects as they thought about 60 nouns ranging from different parts of the body to fruits and vegetables. Those nouns had been categorized according the verbs most associated with them in the English language, be it eat, run, pull or whatever. "Door," for instance, would be associated with push, pull or open. The team fed the semantic links, along with the associated fMRI data, into a computer algorithm and was able to correctly predict 77 percent of the time how a person's brain scan would look when presented with certain new nouns.
Using baking soda to spot cancer earlier
It's supposed to be good for scrubbing your teeth and keeping your fridge sweet smelling. But now researchers from the University of Cambridge report in Nature that they used sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) to locate malignant tumors in mice. The finding paves the way for a new, noninvasive way of detecting tumors earlier, potentially sparing thousands of lives. The way it works: bicarbonate, an alkaline, rushes to areas in the body that are unnaturally acidic—including cancer cells—to try to balance them. Cancer cells release carbon dioxide when exposed to bicarbonate, which reduces the acidity. Knowing this, the researchers injected diseased mice with baking soda and were able to pinpoint tumors by their CO2 release, which was captured by an MRI machine 20,000 times more powerful than those commonly used. Study co-author and Cambridge biochemist Kevin Brindle told the BBC that the new technique also holds promise for showing how well tumors are responding to treatment. Human clinical trials are set to begin next year.
Dead Planet? Mars water may have been to salty for life
Microbial life on Mars may have died off as quickly as it evolved—a victim of over-seasoning, perhaps. NASA's Opportunity rover identified minerals on the Red Planet's Meridiani Planum that were most likely deposited by liquid water, long since evaporated. Now researchers have used geochemical models to calculate how salty that water would have been. They report in Science that those ancient ponds were far saltier than the vast majority of Earthly organisms could have tolerated, suggesting that life on Mars might never have had a chance.
Anonymous donor bails out Fermilab
Work furloughs instituted at the nation's sole surviving particle physics laboratory—Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., home to the massive Tevatron particle accelerator—will no longer be necessary, the lab's director told employees last week. An anonymous donation of $5 million to the University of Chicago should counteract the unexpected 2008 budget cuts that forced all employees to take off one week per month, although the lab says it will still have to lay off about 140 employees. It's not the first bailout of a U.S. particle physics lab; theoretical physicist and hedge-fund billionaire James Simons donated $13 million to Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., in 2006 to keep the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider running.