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There’s a Map of Your Face in Other People's Brains

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Don’t get too creeped out, but there are a whole lot of people walking around right now with a map of your face in their brains. But at least it’s a two-way street—you have their faces mapped in yours, too. That’s the conclusion of a recent report published in the journal Cortex.

Social animals depend on being able to recognize one another. All monkeys might look the same to you, but you can be sure that they can tell each other apart. The same is true for humans. The ability to identify another person is a vital part of social interaction, which is an essential part of our lives. 

For that reason, our brains seem to devote a lot of real estate to facial recognition. Scientists believe that most of the work of facial perception happens in two brain sections: the occipital face area (OFA) and the fusiform face area (FFA). But it wasn’t clear how those regions managed recognition. 

One group of researchers believes they’ve found out. The new report describes a phenomenon the authors call “faciotopy,” or face mapping.

Mapping is nothing new for our brains. Each part of your body is represented in miniature on the outer layer of your brain. The arrangement of the body parts in your brain mirrors their actual arrangement in your body, a representation known as the cortical homunculus.   

The authors say faciotopy acts the same way, by etching a little version of a person’s face on your OFA and FFA. They concluded this after an experiment in which they showed people pictures of mouths, noses, and other facial features while scanning their brains. The scans revealed a lot of activity in one specific area of the OFA, and some activity in another section of the FFA. The layout of these regions seemed to mirror the arrangement of features on a human face. 

If the researchers are correct, they have found the first mapping action in the brain that relates to the external world.

Lead author Linda Henriksson was not surprised by her team’s findings. “Facial recognition is so fundamental to human behaviour that it makes sense that there would be a specialised area of the brain that maps features of the face,” she told New Scientist. 

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Whale Sharks Can Live for More Than a Century, Study Finds
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Some whale sharks alive today have been swimming around since the Gilded Age. The animals—the largest fish in the ocean—can live as long as 130 years, according to a new study in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. To give you an idea of how long that is, in 1888, Grover Cleveland was finishing up his first presidential term, Thomas Edison had just started selling his first light bulbs, and the U.S. only had 38 states.

To determine whale sharks' longevity, researchers from the Nova Southeastern University in Florida and the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program tracked male sharks around South Ari Atoll in the Maldives over the course of 10 years, calculating their sizes as they came back to the area over and over again. The scientists identified sharks that returned to the atoll every few years by their distinctive spot patterns, estimating their body lengths with lasers, tape, and visually to try to get the most accurate idea of their sizes.

Using these measurements and data on whale shark growth patterns, the researchers were able to determine that male whale sharks tend to reach maturity around 25 years old and live until they’re about 130 years old. During those decades, they reach an average length of 61.7 feet—about as long as a bowling lane.

While whale sharks are known as gentle giants, they’re difficult to study, and scientists still don’t know a ton about them. They’re considered endangered, making any information we can gather about them important. And this is the first time scientists have been able to accurately measure live, swimming whale sharks.

“Up to now, such aging and growth research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings, analogous to counting tree rings, to determine age,” first author Cameron Perry said in a press statement. ”Our work shows that we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks captured in fisheries. That is a big deal.”

Though whale sharks appear to be quite long-lived, their lifespan is short compared to the Greenland shark's—in 2016, researchers reported they may live for 400 years. 

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Scientists Find a Possible Link Between Beef Jerky and Mania
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Scientist have discovered a surprising new factor that may contribute to mania: meat sticks. As NBC News reports, processed meats containing nitrates, like jerky and some cold cuts, may provoke symptoms of mental illness.

For a new study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, scientists surveyed roughly 1100 people with psychiatric disorders who were admitted into the Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore between 2007 and 2017. They had initially set out to find whether there was any connection between certain infectious diseases and mania, a common symptom of bipolar disorder that can include racing thoughts, intense euphoria, and irritability.

While questioning participants about their diet, the researchers discovered that a significant number of them had eaten cured meats before their manic episodes. Patients who had recently consumed products like salami, jerky, and dried meat sticks were more likely to be hospitalized for mania than subjects in the control group.

The link can be narrowed down to nitrates, which are preservatives added to many types of cured meats. In a later part of the study, rats that were fed nitrate-free jerky acted less hyperactive than those who were given meat with nitrates.

Numerous studies have been published on the risks of consuming foods pumped full of nitrates: The ingredient can lead to the formation of carcinogens, and it can react in the gut in a way that promotes inflammation. It's possible that inflammation from nitrates can trigger mania in people who are already susceptible to it, but scientists aren't sure how this process might work. More research still needs to be done on the relationship between gut health and mental health before people with psychiatric disorders are told to avoid beef jerky altogether.

[h/t NBC News]

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