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SciTech Briefs

Study shows that caffeine may help short-term memory

A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University suggests that consuming some coffee may improve the ability to retain information. One hundred sixty participants were assigned to look at pictures of various objects and were then given either a caffeine pill or a placebo. The next day, participants were given another set of pictures that included images similar, but not identical, to those of the previous day, and told to assign the pictures as old, new, or similar. Those that received the caffeine boost were more likely to correctly identify images as similar, rather than identical, to pictures from the previous day. Previous studies that did not find a relation between caffeine intake and memory may have been due to participants consuming caffeine before the information was learned.

Source: Science News

Chimps use hand gestures as a way of communication

Researchers at Georgia State University have found that two language-trained chimpanzees can communicate with humans to find food. For the experiment, the team of researchers placed food in an outdoor area. The chimpanzee was forced to aid a human participant who did not know the location of the hidden food to find it, using whatever method the chimp chose to communicate. The researchers found that the chimpanzee used gestures such as pointing to help the human participant find food.

The study is the first indication that chimpanzees are capable of pointing and using gestures to coordinate with others toward achieving goals. Researchers believe that using gestures may have been an important step in the evolution of language.

Source: ScienceDaily

First discovery of black hole orbiting spinning star

A team of Spanish scientists were the first to discover an instance of a black hole orbiting what is known as a spinning star. The discovery was made using the Liverpool and Mercator telescopes in the Canary Islands. Spinning stars — also known as Be-type stars — are known for rotating very fast. “It’s like they were cosmic spinning tops,” said Jorge Casares, the lead author of the Nature paper in which the discovery is published. The newly-discovered black hole that rotates the Be-type star is in the Lacerta constellation and is approximately 8500 light-years from Earth. The Be-type star has a surface speed of over 1 million kilometers per hour.

The black hole is fed by matter that is ejected from the Be-type star.

Source: ScienceDaily

Portable brain scanner used with smartphone device

The Bhutan Epilepsy Project — a program funded by the Canadian government — aims to use an Android application to diagnose epilepsy for those in developing nations. Scientists at the Technical University of Denmark have created a portable brain scanner that consists of an electrode skullcap attached to a smartphone. The device should be able to perform electroencephalograms (EEGs).

The device is in clinical trials in the United States and Denmark. The readings from the portable EEG will be calibrated with results from standard EEG equipment. Once the trials are complete, the team will work with professionals in Bhutan to implement the portable EEG. Researchers stress that professionals in Bhutan also need to be trained on how to read the EEGs.

Source: New Scientist

Bacterium may positively influence newborn behavior

Researchers in Italy have found that newborns that take drops containing a beneficial bacterium cry less than babies who do not. Although the cause of excessive crying in infants is unknown, this study suggests that microbes in the baby’s gut may be a factor. In the study, the researchers randomly assigned 589 newborns to either receive a probiotic supplement or a placebo. The supplement contained the microbe Lactobacillus reuteri, which has been shown to improve intestinal function.

Parents delivered the drops and recorded their infant’s behavior in a journal. Infants receiving the probiotic supplement cried for an average of 38 minutes a day, while those receiving the placebo cried on average for 71 minutes.

Source: Science News

Chemical spill leaves residents without clean water

Tanks at a chemical company in West Virginia named Freedom Industries burst on January 9. The tanks spilled the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as MCHM, into the river near Charleston. Inspectors estimate that approximately 7,500 gallons of the agents spilled into the Elk River and left more than 300 thousand residents without drinking water. The governor declared a state of emergency and schools and eateries were forced to close.

Not much is known about the health affects of MCHM, a solvent used to wash coal. Residents couldn’t bathe, drink water, or wash their clothes. Boiling water was not an effective method to purify the water.

Source: Los Angeles Times