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Why Sisters Are Scientifically Better Than Brothers (and Other Important Discoveries)

If you're keeping tabs on the score between robots and humans, you've probably heard about the robot named Adam who made a scientific discovery back in April without any human assistance. Well, sort of. He made the discovery after some human scientists gave him a specific project to work on. And while the event was chalked up as a win in the artificial intelligence column, we're here to tell you that Adam's still got a lot of catching up to do before he's doing the work of real human scientists. Need proof? From definitive proof on why sisters are better than brothers to the reasons we itch and scratch, here's our monthly round-up of (human!) scientific discoveries you ought to know about.

Science Proves Sisters are Way Better than Brothers?!

New research from the University of Ulster confirms that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Tony Cassidy, the lead researcher on the project, found sisters make their siblings more optimistic and help families deal with problems in emotionally healthy ways. Families with at least one sister are more cohesive and communicate more often. Girls who grow up with a sister are more independent and achieve more than girls who have brothers. Cassidy surveyed 571 young adults between 17 and 25. He found that sisters have the most positive impact on broken families. Only children scored in the mid-range for happiness while boys who had only brothers were the least happy.

Tony Cassidy, University of Ulster; presentation at the British Psychological Association Annual Conference.

Reducing Autism Cases by 15%

There's good news in the fight against autism: Hakon Hakonarson's new research may drastically reduce the number of autism cases in the world. Hakonarson, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been running the largest and most exhaustive genetic study on the disorder. He's analyzed DNA from 2,600 autistic children, 2,000 of their family members, and 7,000 healthy controls. Hakonarson's team has found several variations in chromosomes, but one of the most important might be the variation on gene CDH10, which was found in 65 percent of autistic participants. Amazingly, researchers hypothesize that by fixing this variation they could reduce the number of autism cases by 15 percent. They also found that autism was linked strongly to 30 genes, which produce proteins that help brain cells migrate to the correct location and connect to neighboring cells. While it will be years before autism is completely understood, Hakonarson's results have given scientists a foothold since they can now point to 133 genes which directly contribute to the disorder.

Hakon Hakonarson, et al. "Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders," Nature.

Poverty Can Affect Your Memory

Social scientists have long understood that poorer children don't perform as well as their more affluent peers. Researchers know that inadequate schools, infrequent access to health care, and low quality diets contribute to lower academic and career achievement—the so-called income-achievement gap. But two child development experts have also found that the stress of poverty changes brain functioning. Cornell University's Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied 195 poor and middle class Caucasian students. By measuring their stress hormones and blood pressure at age 9 and 13, the researchers found a direct link between poverty and stress. The duo also tested 17-year old students on their memory-- a reliable indicator of reading, language and problem-solving abilities. Children who grew up in poverty recalled 8.5 items while children who were more affluent remembered 9.44 items. The duo theorizes that stress hormones damage grey matter leading to the deficiencies in working memory.

Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg "Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Science of Scratching

itching-powder.jpgThe next time you complain about your itchy back and feet, remember that you don't have it that bad. In one of the more disturbing accounts we've ever read (if you're squeamish, don't read ahead), a June 2008 New Yorker article by author Atul Gawande introduced the world to M, a woman who had recently suffered from shingles. M, who is also HIV positive, could not stop scratching the right side of her head. She complained to her doctor who prescribed the normal anti-itching remedies, but the feeling wouldn't cease. Her doctor suggested it was a form of OCD, yet OCD medications didn't quell the itch either. Worse still, the condition got so bad that M actually scratched through her skull.

For people suffering from serious itching conditions, scratching does little to stop the sensation. But now, thanks to Glenn Giesler Jr. and Steve Davidson's recent study, we might understand what's going on when you need to itch. Here's how it works: When a mosquito bites your arm, your sensory neurons respond to the histamine by carrying the itch message through the spinal cord to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus passes the itch message to the cerebral cortex, which produces the itching sensation at the bite. That's what makes you want to scratch the bite. But Giesler and Davidson did something clever. By using primates, Giesler applied histamine to the animals' feet. If the researchers itched the foot after applying the histamine, the message was disrupted in the spinal cord, meaning the brain didn't get the order to create the itching feeling. The hope is that by understanding how scratching and itching works, it will allow researchers to find better solutions soon.

Steve Davidson, Xijing Zhang, Sergey G Khasabov, Donald A Simone and Glenn J Giesler Jr. "Relief of itch by scratching: state-dependent inhibition of primate spinothalamic tract neurons," Nature Neuroscience.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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