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Talk nerdy to me

Join us for some nerdy talk about extra fingers, pollen detectives, disposable batteries, what we get wrong about cats, and why you should really brush your teeth.

Putting a finger on a problem

One in every 500 babies is born with extra fingers or toes. The condition, called polydactyly comes from the Greek many (poly) and finger (dactylos). Because polydactyly is seen as a congenital disorder, the extra digits are usually removed during infancy. 

Need a hand? New research on people born with extra fingers could help researchers figure out a way to exploit our brain’s capacity to control additional, robotic limbs. Courtesy Imperial College London.

But Professor Etienne Burdet from Imperial College London thinks having extra fingers could have a benefit—not just for the people who possess them, but for science. Burdet and colleagues from the University of Freiburg and Université de Lausanne studied a 52-year-old woman and her 17-year-old-son who each have a well-formed extra finger between the thumb and forefinger of both hands.

Researchers asked the subjects to explore objects and complete tasks with their hands while high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) monitored brain activity. The scientists found that the extra digits possessed dedicated tendons, muscles, and nerves. There were also extra corresponding regions in the motor cortex of the subjects’ brains.

These findings might help scientists use the brain’s own resources to control artificial limbs or digits that could expand our natural abilities. For example, it could allow a surgeon to manipulate a robotic arm and perform procedures without the help of an assistant.

Scanning for food safety

You’ve probably heard of the Internet of Things (IoT). But what about the Internet of Disposable Things (IoDT)? As wireless sensors evolve, the devices may soon be printed on paper or plastic. For example, sometime in the near future, you’ll be able to scan a wireless sensor embedded in a package of potato salad in your refrigerator and find out if it’s safe to eat.

<strong>The internet of disposable things.</strong> In the future, cheap disposable batteries could power wireless sensors that will let you know if your leftover sushi is still good to eat. Courtesy  BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en'>(CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>That sounds great, but what will power all those cheap, disposable sensors? Seokheun Choi, associate professor of electrical engineering at Binghamton University, has an answer. Choi and his team have developed a disposable battery that combines two of the group’s previous ideas—paper-based batteries for single-use low-power systems and long-term microbial fuel cells for lengthier applications.

His new biobattery has enhanced power duration due to solid-state compartments, but without the energy-intensive fluidic feeding systems that microbial fuel cells typically require. Todays’ current IoDTs use expensive batteries that are hazardous to the environment, but Choi’s solution is cheap, disposable, and earth-friendly.

Protect your gums to save your brain

Fresh breath and a winning smile aren’t the only reasons to take care of your teeth and gums. New research from the University of Bergen has uncovered a clear connection between gum disease (gingivitis) and Alzheimer's disease.

<strong>Brushing off dementia.</strong> New research has uncovered a clear connection between gingivitis and Alzheimer’s disease. Courtesy National Cancer Institute.Researcher Piotr Mydel says, "We discovered DNA-based proof that the bacteria causing gingivitis can move from the mouth to the brain." Though this bacteria does not cause Alzheimer’s directly, it does produce a protein that destroys nerve cells in the brain. The result is memory loss and ultimately, Alzheimer’s.

Mydel and his colleagues examined 53 people with Alzheimers and found the nerve cell-killing enzyme in 96% of the subjects. The researchers have developed a drug that can postpone the onset of the disease by blocking the harmful enzyme. Mydel also urges people to brush and floss regularly. He says this is especially important if you already have gingivitis and have a family history of Alzheimer’s.

Fighting crime with pollen

If you have allergies, pollen can be a problem. For an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Arizona State University (ASU), pollen is the solution. Anthony Grubesic, director of the Center for Spatial Reasoning and Policy Analytics is leading an effort to use forensic palynology (the study of pollen, spores, and other microscopic plant bodies) to improve the US government’s ability to track criminals and their weapons.

<strong>Forensic palynology.</strong> Pollen’s distinctive genetic signatures can be used to trace the origin of weapons and other objects and help law enforcement solve crimes. Courtesy Forest Wander. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-SA 2.0)</a>Pollen is everywhere, and its distribution is predictable. That makes it a useful biomarker. Palynology has been used to link the movements of bodies in mass graves in Bosnia. It’s been used by law enforcement agencies to aid in solving crimes like forgery, rape, homicide, and arson.

The ASU researchers believe that pollen can also help determine the origin and movement of papers, computers, and even weapons of mass destruction. During the 5-year project, Grubesic and his team will work to find ways of using pollen’s distinctive genetic signatures to track the origins of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other activities.

A cat’s eye view

It’s believed that cats have lived with people for at least 12,000 years. Today we share our homes with them, feed them, scoop their litter boxes, and sometimes wonder if they might be plotting to kill us.

Kitty cam. Researchers strapped video cameras on 16 cats and let them do their thing. Courtesy Science Magazine.

When Maren Huck’s cat, Treacle, brought home a dead merlin (a type of falcon), she wondered how the cat was able to catch it. Huck, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Derby, attached a small video camera to her kitty and began to track its movements. After collecting footage for six months, she decided to make the study more formal.

Huck and co-author, Samantha Watson, an animal behaviorist at Manchester Metropolitan Universitytracked sixteen video-equipped cats as they prowled their neighborhoods for four years.

They were surprised to find that cats aren’t as lazy as we think. When outside, they were very alert, sometimes scanning their surroundings continually for more than a half-hour. When two cats met, they would often size each other up for the same amount of time before briefly touching noses. When at home, the cats spent a surprising amount of time following their humans around.

Huck believes the study could inform the debate around whether domestic cats should be kept indoors all the time. Tracking their activity would help owners understand if their pets need more things to do while indoors, or if they could use some outside time.

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