SciTech Briefs

Facebook unveils location feature

Facebook released its new “Places” feature last Wednesday, entering the growing arena of location-based social networking services. Facebook Places joins existing services like Foursquare and Gowalla, which allow users to “check in” from any location. Places includes features that let friends check others in and show the people checked into a given location at any time. This allows groups of friends to see who might be in the same location — a feature targeted at college students.

As with most new Facebook and location-based features, Places has been closely scrutinized for its privacy implications. Privacy watchdogs like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been generally satisfied with the privacy controls for Facebook Places. Opting out of the service is straightforward, and location information is not available to non-friends by default.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Muscular dystrophy cause revealed

In a paper published by Science last Thursday, researchers identified the mechanism that causes facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). This mechanism is a gene on chromosome 4 that was previously thought to be inactive — what is known as “junk” DNA. According to the researchers, two conditions directly cause a person to have FSHD. The first is the presence of 10 or fewer copies of this gene, and the second is a DNA section called a poly (A) sequence. If both of these conditions are met, an individual will have FSHD.

Understanding how a gene that is thought to be dead can cause a disease has consequences beyond research into causes of muscular dystrophy. Knowing the physical origin of a disease can help scientists target medications. It also gives new insights to researchers studying other disorders that may be linked to junk DNA.

Source: The New York Times

Concussions, Lou Gehrig’s disease linked

Researchers at Boston University have proposed a connection between brain damage from concussions and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In studying the brains of three pro athletes — two football players and a boxer — the researchers identified the TDP-43 protein in the brain and spinal cord. This protein has been linked to motor neuron diseases.

The Boston University study is only the most recent in a series of investigations into the long-term effects of head injuries on athletes and soldiers. Gehrig was known for playing while injured, and he suffered multiple concussions during his career. While the scientists have not yet done enough research to firmly link concussions with neural diseases like ALS, the studies do give further scientific evidence of the negative consequences of repeated brain injuries.