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The Gene That Makes You Smarter

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Brain image via Shutterstock

Scientists have long known that our genetic makeup influences our intelligence. But now, thanks to the largest brain study of its kind, they've pinpointed one gene in particular that may be responsible for our IQ levels. Meet HMGA2. You can call it the "Intelligence Gene" — that's what Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at UCLA and the leader of the massive study, has dubbed it.

By looking at the brain scans of more than 20,000 people from North America, Europe and Australia, Thompson and his fellow researchers identified a variant in HMGA2 — a single different molecule in its string of DNA — which influences brain size, adding about 2 teaspoons of brain volume to people who possess it. In a separate analysis in Australia, researchers discovered that subjects who possessed the Intelligent Gene and had larger brains, also scored slightly higher on IQ tests. Translation: This gene variant makes your brain bigger AND it makes your IQ higher.

How much higher?

Roughly 1.30 points. An average IQ is 100. "The effect is small," Thompson admits, but it "may mean you get a couple more questions correct" on an IQ test.

Some complain that the effect is so small, it can't possibly be relevant, especially since it required such a huge population of participants to find. But what the finding lacks in magnitude, it makes up for in impact. For the first time, science has proved that miniscule genetic changes effect our brain power, something many a study has tried and failed to prove in the past.

Is it in you?

So how prevalent is this Intelligence Gene? It showed up in about a quarter of the study's 20,000 participants. Unless you want to undergo some serious brain scans, there's really no way of knowing whether you're one of the lucky ones. And if you aren't, you're not doomed to a life of stupidity.

Researchers are quick to point out that a number of things influence our intelligence level, like a good education, diet and exercise. "Most other ways we know of improving brain function more than outweigh this gene," Thompson says. So go for a run, read a book and eat well. And take comfort in knowing that, as the New York Times says, "some very smart people have relatively small brains."

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Land Cover CCI, ESA
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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Scientists May Have Found the Real Cause of Dyslexia—And a Way to Treat It
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iStock

Dyslexia is often described as trying to read letters as they jump around the page. Because of its connections to reading difficulties and trouble in school, the condition is often blamed on the brain. But according to a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the so-called learning disability may actually start in the eyes.

As The Guardian reports, a team of French scientists say they've discovered a key physiological difference between the eyes of those with dyslexia and those without it. Our eyes have tiny light-receptor cells called rods and cones. The center of a region called the fovea is dominated by cones, which are also responsible for color perception.

Just as most of us have a dominant hand, most have a dominant eye too, which has more neural connections to the brain. The study of 60 people, divided evenly between those with dyslexia and those without, found that in the eyes of non-dyslexic people, the arrangement of the cones is asymmetrical: The dominant eye has a round, cone-free hole, while the other eye has an unevenly shaped hole. However, in people with dyslexia, both eyes have the same round hole. So when they're looking at something in front of them, such as a page in a book, their eyes perceive exact mirror images, which end up fighting for visual domination in the brain. This could explain why it's sometimes impossible for a dyslexic person to distinguish a "b" from a "d" or an "E" from a "3".

These results challenge previous research that connects dyslexia to cognitive abilities. In a study published earlier this year, people with the condition were found to have a harder time remembering musical notes, faces, and spoken words. In light of the new findings, it's unclear whether this is at the root of dyslexia or if growing up with vision-related reading difficulties affects brain plasticity.

If dyslexia does come down to some misarranged light-receptors in the eye, diagnosing the disorder could be as simple as giving an eye exam. The explanation could also make it easy to treat without invasive surgery. In the study, the authors describe using an LED lamp that blinks faster than the human eye can perceive to "cancel out" one of the mirror images perceived by dyslexic readers, leaving only one true image. The volunteers who read with it called it a "magic lamp." The researchers hope to further experiment with it to see see if it's a viable treatment option for the millions of people living with dyslexia.

[h/t The Guardian]

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