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6 Fascinating Facts About Oxytocin, the "Love Hormone"

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The hormone oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” or the “bonding hormone” because of its observed effects on our relationships. It's released by the hypothalamus during physical intimacy, and during breastfeeding to facilitate mother-child bonding. It also helps us trust one another—as Irina Conboy, associate professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, puts it, “this is the hormone that makes your heart melt when you see kittens, puppies and human babies.” But it’s not that straightforward, and many of oxytocin’s effects seem to contradict the presumption that it turns us into blubbering piles of love. Here, a look at some of the many things this molecule can do.

1. It helps turn off fear.

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Bonn Hospital discovered that oxytocin inhibits the brain’s fear center. In the study, scientists induced fear in subjects by showing them a series of images, 70 percent of which were accompanied by a small electric shock to the hand. Half the subjects then received an oxytocin nasal spray and were shown the same images again, but without the electric shock. Those treated with oxytocin were less afraid of the shock, and the areas of their brains associated with fear were less active. The finding suggests oxytocin could be used to treat anxiety disorders in the future.

2. It may be the cause of your mommy issues.

Oxytocin has been shown to influence how men remember their mother’s affection toward them as children. While under the influence of the hormone, men with strong attachments and happy memories of their mother had these memories heightened, and recalled being closer to her as a kid. This was to be expected, but researchers were surprised to find oxytocin did not enhance positive memories for men who were less attached to their mothers. Instead, the hormone brought bad memories to the forefront, causing men to remember their mothers as less caring. "The fact that oxytocin did not make all participants remember their mother as more caring, but in fact intensified the positivity or negativity of the men's pre-existing memories, suggests that oxytocin plays a more specific role in these attachment representations,” says researcher Jennifer Bartz, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

3. It makes us cheaters and liars

In one study, participants were asked to predict the outcome of a coin toss and self-report their accuracy. Correct guesses resulted in money, which would be split between team members. Predictably, a financial reward encouraged participants to lie about their success rate. But a dose of oxytocin made them lie even more, and without hesitation. “This is the best evidence yet that oxytocin is not the ‘moral molecule,’” said Carsten de Dreu from the University of Amsterdam, who co-led the study.

4. It makes your dog like you more.

Humans aren’t the only animals affected by oxytocin. One study suggests the hormone makes dogs more friendly toward their owners. Researchers administered oxytocin to 16 adult dogs of different breeds and watched their behavior, paying specific attention to “bonding” behavior like sniffing, nudging, licking, and playing. "We found that after receiving the oxytocin spray, dogs displayed more affiliative behaviors and paid more attention to their owners than during the controls," said the study’s lead author Teresa Romero. The substance may someday be useful in helping abused dogs trust their new, loving owners.

5. It helps heal age-related ailments.

As mice age, the amount of oxytocin in their blood decreases. But what does that mean for their health? Researchers injected oxytocin under the skin of elderly mice with damaged muscles and discovered the muscles healed much faster than those of mice left untreated. “The action of oxytocin was fast,” said Christian Elabd, the study’s co-author. “The repair of muscle in the old mice was at about 80 percent of what we saw in the young mice.” Researchers aren’t sure yet when oxytocin levels drop in humans, or by how much, but they hope it could be used to treat some of our age-related ailments. “Aging is a natural process,” said Irina Conboy, associate professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley, “but I believe that we can meaningfully intervene with age-imposed organ degeneration, thereby slowing down the rate at which we become progressively unhealthy.”

6. It could help treat eating disorders.

In one study, researchers found that oxytocin nasal spray helped patients suffering from anorexia stop obsessing over things like food and body image. “Oxytocin reduces patients' unconscious tendencies to focus on food, body shape,” said Professor Youl-Ri Kim from Inje University in Seoul, South Korea. This “hints at the advent of a novel, ground-breaking treatment option for patients with anorexia."

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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