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News Bytes of the Week

Grim feline reaper, rock'n'roll astrophysicist and more

The grim kitty: cat senses death
When a cat named Oscar curls up next to an ailing patient at a nursing home in Rhode Island, staffers start calling next of kin. Seems the standoffish kitty gets friendly when he senses the end is near: In the two years since Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence adopted the finicky feline, more than 25 residents in the center's dementia unit died just hours after Oscar showered them with affection, Reuters reports. The New England Journal of Medicine let the cat out of the bag. (NEJM; Reuters)

We will rock you into outer space
Queen guitarist Brian May is a stone's throw from completing what rock superstardom interrupted more than 30 years ago: his astrophysics PhD. The 60-year-old rocker told the Associated Press that he plans to submit his doctoral thesis, "Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud," to Imperial College London within two weeks. Sounds like a bitching title for an album, er, CD. (Associated Press)

Writer's cramp writ large in brain
More than just a pain in the neck, the chronic muscle contraction commonly known as writer's cramp not only puts a crimp in penmanship but may also wither parts of the brain—or, on the other hand, may result from such withering—says a new study. Researchers report that people with stiff achy hands have less gray matter in three areas of the brain (the cerebellum, thalamus, and sensorimotor cortex) that coordinate sensation and movement for the affected hand. (Neurology; press release)

Humans give computer the straight flush
On Tuesday, a pair of human poker pros beat a wily computer program before not quite a full house in the first ever "man-machine poker championship." Computers may have trounced humans in backgammon, checkers and chess, but gray matter is still king when lady luck rules. (University of Alberta)

My four suns
A dusty disk found swirling in the quadruple-star system HD 98800 150 light-years away could someday coalesce into one or more planets that would receive quite the light show. The disk encircles a pair of twin suns that waltz around a more distant duo. Astronomers say that planet-forming clouds may be common around multiple-star systems. (Preprint; SPACE.com)

Sloshed and snipped in space
NASA's already bad year got worse on Thursday, when word broke of allegations that two astronauts had on separate occasions been cleared to fly after boozing it up within 12 hours of a launch. Adding to the agency's woes: news that an employee for one of its subcontractors deliberately snipped the wires in a computer set to be sent to the International Space Station on the shuttle Endeavor. (Aviation Week; Associated Press)

The .06-million-dollar hand
Juan Arredondo was devastated when his left hand was blown off during a 2005 patrol in Iraq. But now the 27-year-old war veteran has a new, bionic one in its place. This real-life Luke Skywalker is one of the first recipients of the i-Limb, which transmits nerve signals from his arm into instructions for five independent motors that flex and straighten the fingers. Price tag: $65,000. The Defense Department foot the bill for the mechanical hand, which Arredondo's Dad told the AP his son "goes nuts'' over. (Engadget; Touch Bionics; video)

Gene therapy death
The Food and Drug Administration stopped a gene therapy trial this week after a patient undergoing the experimental treatment for a severe form of arthritis had a fatal reaction. Seattle-based Targeted Genetics had enrolled 127 people in the trial in which physicians injected them with a virus that produces an inflammation-fighting protein. Researchers had thought such viruses safer than one that led to the death of Pennsylvania teenager Jesse Gelsinger during a gene therapy trial eight years ago. (FDA; Targeted Genetics statement)

Reefer madness
How high can pot get you? Insanely high, according to this week's Lancet. Researchers smoked—um, combed—the literature examining the effect of cannabis use on psychosis and found that users were 41 percent more likely than nonusers to suffer a psychotic episode later in life; chronic tokers had twice the risk, which for the average person is nearly 4 in 10,000, according to a prior Danish study. No doubt those who imbibe regularly will be tres paranoid about the findings, especially after toking up. (Lancet [abstract free with registration]; press release)

Eye know what you're doing
People behave less selfishly when they know others are watching them, which can lead to a complicated game of cat and mouse when the watched try to fool the observers they are acting naturally, researchers explain this week in Science. The authors speculate that totem poles may have had a socializing effect on societies that erected them by keeping a constant Big Brother-like watch. Who knows? Maybe the Mona Lisa keeps a similar watch over the Louvre. (Science [restricted access])

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