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Scientists Study the Complex Roles of Gases in Our Bodies

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We like the idea that our being is divided into two parts: body and mind. But the more we learn about our biology, the more we see that the borders between the two are permeable, if not outright imaginary. Take gases, for instance. A new study shows how the gases swirling inside our bodies can power our brains and affect the way we act. The paper was published in the journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease

Our body parts are constantly in flux, working and changing in a very active ecosystem. They need fuel to stay active. For your nervous system, this means the chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help communicate impulses from one nerve cell to another. Those neurotransmitters take a number of different forms—including gases. 

Some gaseous neurotransmitters (or gasotransmitters) are produced by your organs and tissues. Others—such as nitric oxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), methane (CH4), hydrogen (H2), and ammonia (NH3)—are the products of fermentation in your gut by microscopic organisms like bacteria. These tiny molecules feed and help regulate your cells and those of the microbes living inside you—complex relationships that can have much larger consequences. 

NO, for example, is a favorite food of the E. coli bacteria that live in your gut. The more stress your body is under, the more NO it makes, which means that E. coli stands to gain quite a bit by stirring up trouble in your body. 

Like your microbiome (the ecosystem of microbes in and on your body), these gases serve us best when they and their fuel sources are balanced. Studies in mice have shown that a deficiency of NO-producing enzymes can lead to increased sexual activity and depression, while not having enough H2S may trigger seizures and other neurological disorders. 

The review study’s lead author Alexander Oleskin is a biologist at Lomonosov Moscow State University. “Prospectively the research findings will be implemented in medical and psychiatric practice,” he said in a press statement. In the future, he says, doctors could use probiotics to encourage the growth of gas-producing or gas-consuming bacteria.

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People Listen (and Remember) Better With Their Right Ears, Study Finds
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If you’re having trouble hearing in a noisy situation, you might want to turn your head. New research finds that people of all ages depend more on their right ear than their left, and remember information better if it comes through their right ear. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans on December 6.

Kids’ ears work differently than adults' do. Previous studies have found that children's auditory systems can’t separate and process information coming through both of their ears at the same time, and rely more on the auditory pathway coming from the right. This reliance on the right ear tends to decrease when kids reach their teens, but the findings suggest that in certain situations, right-ear dominance persists long into adulthood.

To study how we process information through both our ears, Auburn University audiologists brought 41 adult subjects (between the ages of 19 and 28) into the lab to complete dichotic listening tests, which involve listening to different auditory inputs in each ear. They were either supposed to pay attention only to the words, sentences, or numbers they heard in one ear while ignoring the other, or they were asked to repeat all the words they heard in both ears. In this case, the researchers slowly upped the number of items the test subjects were asked to remember during each hearing test.

Instructions for the audio test read 'Repeat back only the numbers you hear in the right ear.'
Sacchinelli, Weaver, Wilson and Cannon - Auburn University

They found that the harder the memory tests got, the more performance varied between the ears. While both ears performed equally when people were asked to remember only four or so words, when the number got higher, the difference between their abilities became more apparent. When asked to only focus on information coming through their right ear, people’s performance on the memory task increased by an average of 8 percent. For some people, the result was even more dramatic—one person performed 40 percent better while listening with only their right ear.

"Conventional research shows that right-ear advantage diminishes around age 13, but our results indicate this is related to the demand of the task,” one of the researchers, assistant professor Aurora Weaver, explained in a press release. In other words, when the going gets tough, the right ear steps up.

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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