Hoverbike,The coolest invention in drone technology.


Deep in the English countryside, aeronautical engineers are perfecting a new generation of aerial drone. With increased stability and manoeuvrability, and able to carry a much heavier payload… it represents a significant leap forward in drone technology. This small drone, however, is just the 1/3rd proof-of-concept model for something much more ambitious. A full-sized quad-copter hoverbike that can be piloted by a person as well as flown by remote. It’s the brain-child of engineer and helicopter pilot Chris Malloy, who first tested his concept with this bi-copter design.

Watch the video on youtube: URL:http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sVYwDeoPpyM

Malaria diagnosed by measuring blood magnetisation .


This technique could rapidly speed up detection.

malaria2

Scientists have used magnetic sensors to diagnose malaria five times more accurately than established diagnostic techniques.

Until now scientists have only tested infections in mice but, if the technique is confirmed in humans, doctors could diagnose the disease two to four days earlier, providing the crucial extra time to administer life-saving medicine.

The new method, reported in Nature Medicine (31 August), exploits the inherit magnetism of the iron in red blood cells.

Blood has a natural magnetic quality, which is altered by infection with malaria.

The parasite slips inside the host’s blood cells and starts to metabolise proteins, converting them into nanocrystals, which have a relatively large paramagnetic susceptibility. The nanocrystals increase the magnetisation of infected blood cells and allows scientists to detect very low levels of infection using magnetic sensors.

Currently, malaria is detected using microscopy, which requires training and equipment, and a colour-coded dipstick test, which misses about one in six cases.

“With malaria, a few days can be the difference between life and death,” co-author Peter Preiser, a parasitologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told ScienceNews. “When diagnosis comes too late, it often leads to hospitalisation. Healthcare costs go up, and sometimes even with great healthcare, the person still dies.”

Malaria is a mosquito-bourne parasite that infects an estimated 207 million people worldwide.

Rethinking basic science of graphene synthesis shows route to industrial-scale production.


A new route to making graphene has been discovered that could make the 21st century’s wonder material easier to ramp up to industrial scale. Graphene—a tightly bound single layer of carbon atoms with super strength and the ability to conduct heat and electricity better than any other known material—has potential industrial uses that include flexible electronic displays, high-speed computing, stronger wind-turbine blades, and more-efficient solar cells, to name just a few under development.

In the decade since Nobel laureates Konstantin Novoselov and Andre Geim proved the remarkable electronic and mechanical properties of graphene, researchers have been hard at work to develop methods of producing pristine samples of the material on a scale with industrial potential. Now, a team of Penn State scientists has discovered a route to making single-layer graphene that has been overlooked for more than 150 years.

“There are lots of layered materials similar to graphene with interesting properties, but until now we didn’t know how to chemically pull the solids apart to make single sheets without damaging the layers,” said Thomas E. Mallouk, Evan Pugh Professor of Chemistry, Physics, and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State. In a paper first published online on Sept. 9 in the journal Nature Chemistry, Mallouk and colleagues at Penn State and the Research Center for Exotic Nanocarbons at Shinshu University, Japan, describe a method called intercalation, in which guest molecules or ions are inserted between the carbon layers of graphite to pull the single sheets apart.

The intercalation of graphite was achieved in 1841, but always with a strong oxidizing or reducing agent that damaged the desirable properties of the material. One of the most widely used methods to intercalate graphite by oxidation was developed in 1999 by Nina Kovtyukhova, a research associate in Mallouk’s lab.

While studying other layered materials, Mallouk asked Kovtyukhova to use her method, which requires a strong and a mixture of acids, to open up single layers of solid boron nitride, a compound with a structure similar to graphite. To their surprise, she was able to get all of the layers to open up. In subsequent control experiments, Kovtyukhova tried leaving out various agents and found that the oxidizing agent wasn’t necessary for the reaction to take place.

Mallouk asked her to try a similar experiment without the oxidizing agent on graphite, but aware of the extensive literature saying that the oxidizing agent was required, Kovtyukhova balked.

“I kept asking her to try it and she kept saying no,” Mallouk said. “Finally, we made a bet, and to make it interesting I gave her odds. If the reaction didn’t work I would owe her $100, and if it did she would owe me $10. I have the ten dollar bill on my wall with a nice Post-it note from Nina complimenting my chemical intuition.”

Mallouk believes the results of this new understanding of intercalation in boron nitride and could apply to many other layered materials of interest to researchers in the Penn State Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials who are investigating what are referred to as “Materials Beyond Graphene.” The next step for Mallouk and colleagues will be to figure out how to speed the reaction up in order to scale up production.

God particle could destroy the universe, warns Stephen Hawking


  • The Higgs boson ‘God particle’ could destroy the universe, Hawking says
  • Space and time could suddenly collapse – and ‘we would not see it coming’ 
  • If scientists put too much energy in the Higgs boson the universe could end
  • Disaster very unlikely as physicists do not have large enough collider

The elusive ‘God particle’ discovered by scientists in 2012 has the potential to destroy the universe, Professor Stephen Hawking has warned.

At very high energy levels, the Higgs boson could cause space and time suddenly collapse – and ‘we wouldn’t see it coming’, the former Cambridge professor of mathematics says.

The God particle, which gives shape and size to everything that exists, could cause a ‘catastrophic vacuum delay’ if scientists were to put it under extreme stress.

Stephen Hawking wrote that the recently-found Higgs boson 'God particle' could destroy the universe

Stephen Hawking wrote that the recently-found Higgs boson ‘God particle’ could destroy the universe

The God Particle could destabilise at high energy, threatening the universe, but the Cern particle accelerator is too slow to cause such a problem 

The God Particle could destabilise at high energy, threatening the universe, but the Cern particle accelerator is too slow to cause such a problem

A disaster like this is very unlikely for the time being as physicists do not have a particle accelerator large enough create such an experiment, but Prof Hawking’s comments have excited scientists, the Sunday Times reported.

The theoretical physicist wrote his thoughts on the Higgs boson in the preface to a new book, Starmus, a collection of lectures by scientists and astronomers including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Queen guitarist Brian May.

Prof Hawking wrote: ‘The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become megastable at energies above 100bn giga-electron-volts (GeV).

‘This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light.

‘This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.’

 The theoretical physicist wrote his thoughts on the Higgs boson in the preface to a new book, Starmus, which is released in early November this year

 The theoretical physicist wrote his thoughts on the Higgs boson in the preface to a new book, Starmus, which is released in early November this year

British scientist Peter Higgs predicted the  God Particle in the early 1960s but it was only found in 2012

British scientist Peter Higgs predicted the God Particle in the early 1960s but it was only found in 2012

WHAT IS THE GOD PARTICLE?

The Higgs boson was a key missing piece in the jigsaw for physicists in trying to understand how the universe works. 

Scientists believe that a fraction of a second after the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe, an invisible energy field, called the Higgs field, formed.

This has been described as a kind of ‘cosmic treacle’ across the universe. As particles passed through it, they picked up mass, giving them size and shape and allowing them to form the atoms that make up you, everything around you and everything in the universe.

This was the theory proposed in 1964 by former grammar school boy Professor Higgs that has now been confirmed.

Without the Higgs field particles would simply whizz around space in the same way as light does.

A boson is a type of sub-atomic particle. Every energy field has a specific particle that governs its interaction with what’s around it.

The professor did add sarcastically, however, that such an event is unlikely in the near future.

He said: ‘A particle accelerator that reaches 100bn GeV would be larger than Earth, and is unlikely to be funded in the present economic climate.’

Professor John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at Cern, said: ‘One thing should be made clear. The discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) did not cause this problem, and collisions at the LHC could not trigger the instability, because their energies are far too low.’

Particle accelerators make subatomic particles travel at greater and greater speeds as they are pumped with more energy before smashing them together.

Scientists do this to try and spot tiny fragments of particles which fly off, and it is how the Higgs boson was discovered at the Cern LHC in Switzerland in 2012.

In that experiment, physicists noticed unexpected debris from the collisions that fitted with what British scientist Peter Higgs had predicted in the early 1960s.

The Higgs boson particle is thought to be part of the mechanism that gives matter its mass, but scientists do not fully understand it yet.

Higgs Boson like discovery hails physics breakthrough

The Higgs boson particle is thought to be part of the mechanism that gives matter its mass, but scientists do not fully understand it yet

The Higgs boson particle is thought to be part of the mechanism that gives matter its mass, but scientists do not fully understand it yet

 

Why Women Need More Sleep Than Men: Research Shows Stronger Mental, Physical Response To Inadequate Rest


Women need more sleep than men, according to a recent study. Researchers from Duke University have discovered that, compared to men, women experience more mental and physical consequences from inadequate rest. Besides giving half the population a legitimate reason to sleep in, the findings could also inspire new health recommendations for women at greater risk of heart disease, depression, and psychological problems.

The study, which was led by clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus, estimated men and women’s respective needs for sleep by assessing their ability to deal with insufficient rest. According to Breus, the experiment suggested a sharp difference between genders. “We found that women had more depression, women had more anger, and women had more hostility early in the morning,” he told reporters.

Who Needs How Much?

Many biological factors are thought to contribute to this disparity. However, some experts believe that it ultimately comes down to mental energy expenditure. Women, they say, simply use their brain more than men do.

“One of the major functions of sleep is to allow the brain to recover and repair itself. During deep sleep, the cortex — the part of the brain responsible for thought, memory, language and so on — disengages from the senses and goes into recovery mode,” Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England, told The Australian. “The more of your brain you use during the day, the more of it that needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need. Women tend to multi-task — they do lots at once and are flexible — and so they use more of their actual brain than men do.”

It follows that, if men used their brains more during the day, they would need a couple of extra hours too. “A man who has a complex job that involves a lot of decision-making and lateral thinking may also need more sleep than the average male — though probably still not as much as a woman,” Horne said.

woman sleeping

The Science of Sleep

Breus’ and his colleagues’ study adds to a growing number of scientific inquiries into the health outcomes of sleep deprivation. In a paper published earlier this year, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine showed a correlation between inadequate rest and accelerated skin aging. Other studies have linked poor sleeping patterns to an elevated risk of heart disease, blood clots, stroke, and psychiatric problems.

The average American adult requires between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every day. That said, 80 percent of the population say they habitually fall short of this quota. To learn more about sleep and improving rest patterns, visit The National Sleep Foundation’s online resources.

Australian man had a microchip inserted into hand to use iPhone 6


  • Advertising director Ben Slater had the microchip inserted two weeks ago
  • It was implanted in the webbing of his hand at a Melbourne tattoo parlour
  • Mr Slater hopes the new generation iPhone will be able to read the chip
  • He is able to open doors and switch on lights without touching anything
  • The iPhone 6 will be launched by Apple in two days on September 9

A Brisbane man is living the life of the future after having a microchip implanted under his skin so he can control electronic devices with just a wave of a hand.

Ben Slater had a radio-frequency identification microchip – which has similar measurements to a grain of rice – injected into his left hand through a syringe two weeks ago at a Melbourne tattoo parlour.

The advertising director’s move comes as technology enthusiasts eagerly await the unveiling of the iPhone 6 in two days time.

Ben Slater has had a microchip inserted into his hand to allow him to open doors and switch on lights with the wave of his hand

Ben Slater has had a microchip inserted into his hand to allow him to open doors and switch on lights with the wave of his hand

Mr Slater said he did it because he had always been fascinated with the future of technology

Mr Slater said he did it because he had always been fascinated with the future of technology

Man implants a near field communication (NFC) tag into hand

He hopes the new generation of Apple’s smart phone will have the capability to read the microchip implanted in the webbing between his thumb and forefinger.

The new addition to his body means Mr Slater can swing his front door open, switch on his lights and store personal information with the flick of his hand.

‘The most obvious thing the chip allows me to do is store my contact information on it, so that I can just touch a phone with NFC and pass my information to their phone. That is a great party trick,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

‘But it can also trigger an action on my phone to turn the house lights off, open a secure door which is set to recognise the chip or I could – and probably will – set up my car ignition to be linked to the chip for keyless entry and start up.’

 Mr Slater told Daily Mail Australia he made the decision to implant the microchip because he had always been interested in the future of technology.

‘I wanted to get the chip implanted to generate discussion,’ he said.

‘It intrigues me that we live in an age where this type of activity is even possible, especially for some seeming random guy in Australia to arrange to have done.’

It was inserted in a Melbourne tattoo parlour with a syringe containing the chip

It was inserted in a Melbourne tattoo parlour with a syringe containing the chip

Mr Slater said the procedure to implant the microchip was painful, but over quickly.

‘I just needed to be really careful when it was healing over the course of the two weeks later so that I didn’t move it – otherwise it could have travelled in my hand,’ he said.

The microchip implant may still be new to Australian shores, but it has become a growing trend in the United States after it was introduced in 2004 when the nation’s Food and Drug Administration gave the green light for its use to carry information about people’s medical conditions, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

The iPhone 6 is expected to be the largest phone Apple has produced, with a 5.5-inch screen.

It is believed the handset is so large that it will come with a special ‘one-handed’ mode to make it easier for people to use it.

Anticipation over the phone is so high that people in the U.S. started lining up outside Apple stores two weeks ago to be one of the first to get a slice of the action.

In the U.S., the chip is used to store the medical information of people with illness

In the U.S., the chip is used to store the medical information of people with illness

Mr Slater hopes the new generation iPhone 6 - which will be launched on September 6 - will have the capability to read the chip

Mr Slater hopes the new generation iPhone 6 – which will be launched on September 6 – will have the capability to read the chip

 

Two-part vaccine protects monkeys from Ebola .


An experimental vaccine protects monkeys from infection with Ebola, even when the animals are exposed to the virus 10 months after getting the shots, researchers report September 7 in Nature Medicine.

The vaccine is undergoing safety testing in healthy human volunteers (SN Online: 8/24/14). The World Health Organization announced Fridaythat, once tested, this and another experimental vaccine could be given to health workers as soon as November to fight the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa.

A team led by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., and Okairos, a biotechnology company now part of GlaxoSmithKline, developed the candidate vaccine by placing genetic material from the Ebola virus into a chimpanzee common cold virus. A single shot protected four macaques when they were exposed to Ebola five weeks later.

Another set of four monkeys got the test vaccine shot plus a booster shot eight weeks later. The booster included Ebola gene segments incorporated into a poxvirus. All four animals evaded infection when exposed to Ebola 10 months after the booster shot.

The vaccine doesn’t use human cold viruses because many people have immunity to them and people’s immune systems may wipe out the vaccine before the body could engender a reaction to Ebola, the authors note.

Jack The Ripper identity revealed: Is Aaron Kosminski the real killer?


DNA evidence has uncovered the identity of Jack The Ripper, and it’s none of the romantic suspects – such as the Queen’s surgeon Sir William Gull, or artist Walter Sickert.

Has the face of Jack The Ripper finally been unmasked?

The most infamous serial killer in history has been identified as a relatively underwhelming Polish madman called Aaron Kosminski, who was committed to a mental asylum at the height of the Ripper hysteria.

Kosminski was actually a suspect at the time of the murders, even named by Chief Inspector Donald Swanson in notes the policemen made, but as the myth and legend of the murders grew over more than 125 years, so too did the list of more fanciful suspects.

The breakthrough came when a scientist, using cutting-edge technology, matched DNA evidence on a shawl found at one of the crime scenes with descendants of Kosminski.

Dr Jari Louhelainen, a Finnish expert in historic DNA, was brought in to study a shawl found with Catherine Eddowes, the second-last ‘confirmed’ victim of the Ripper, whose body was discovered in Mitre Square on September 30.

Donald Swanson
Kosminski’s name is clearly visible in a hand-written note by Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Donald Swanson (Picture: PA)

The shawl – still retaining stains and genetic material from the fateful night almost 126 years ago – had been bought by businessman Russell Edwards, 48, at an auction in Bury St Edmunds in 2007.

In the Mail On Sunday, Dr Louhelainen is quoted as saying: ‘It has taken a great deal of hard work, using cutting-edge scientific techniques which would not have been possible five years ago.

‘Once I had the profile, I could compare it to that of the female descendant of Kosminski’s sister, who had given us a sample of her DNA swabbed from inside her mouth.

‘The first strand of DNA showed a 99.2 per cent match, as the analysis instrument could not determine the sequence of the missing 0.8 per cent fragment of DNA. On testing the second strand, we achieved a perfect 100 per cent match.’

Classic depiction of Jack The Ripper stalking the streets of Whitechapel (Picture: Metro)
Classic depiction of Jack The Ripper stalking the streets of Whitechapel (Picture: Metro)

Aaron Kosminski was born in the Polish town of Kłodawa, then part of the Russian Empire, in 1865. He emigrated to England with his family in 1881, moving to Whitechapel.

He set himself up as a hairdresser but it is clear that he was suffering psychological problems, with latter-day case notes saying he had been ill from 1885.

The murders attributed to Jack The Ripper began in 1888. Anywhere between five and 11 murders of women in and around the Whitechapel area have been linked to the Ripper.

A map of Whitechapel with Ripper-related murders (from left): Mary Eddowes in Mitre Lane; Mary Jane Kelly in Dorset Street; Annie Chapman in Hanbury Street; possible victim Martha Tabram in George Yard;  possible victim Emma Smith in Osborn Street; Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street; and Mary Ann Nichols in Bucks Row (Map: Wikipedia Commons)
A map of Whitechapel with Ripper-related murders (from left): Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Lane; Mary Jane Kelly in Dorset Street; Annie Chapman in Hanbury Street; possible victim Martha Tabram in George Yard; possible victim Emma Smith in Osborn Street; Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street; and Mary Ann Nichols in Bucks Row (Map: Wikipedia Commons)

The five relatively undisputed murders – of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly – happened between August 31 and November 9 1888. The 126th anniversary of Chapman’s murder is on Monday (September 8).

The police file on the murders also point to the mutilation deaths of Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, the ‘Pinchin Street torso’ and Frances Coles – Coles being the last to die in February 1891.

In February 1891, Kosminski was forcibly put in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, and he remained in asylums until his death in 1919, aged 53.

While it can be argued that it is hardly conclusive evidence that Kosminski was the Ripper (the DNA of a Whitechapel resident on the belongings of a known Whitechapel prostitute merely proves Kosminski met Eddowes at some point), it does put Kosminski closer to a Ripper victim than any other suspect in the century-old case.

Putting a typically Hollywood spin on the mystery, take another look at the positioning of the confirmed victims. Was Mr Kosminski trying to leave the most tantalising clue of all? Answer: almost certainly not.

Jack The Ripper clue

Discounting the suspected Ripper victims Tabram and Smith, the five confirmed victims’ locations spell a capital K for Kosminski. A clue worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, and just as unlikely

Poor Quality Sleep May Be Linked to Shrinking Brain


Not getting a good night’s sleep might be linked to shrinkage of the brain’s gray matter over time, new research suggests.

Faster deterioration of three parts of the brain was seen in mostly older adults who had poor sleep quality, though not necessarily too little sleep. Sleep difficulties included having trouble falling asleep, waking up during the night or waking up too early.

However, it isn’t clear whether poor sleep causes the changes in the brain, whether a shrinking brain causes poor sleep, or whether a bit of both is occurring.

“We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and sleep has been proposed to be ‘the brain’s housekeeper,’ serving to restore and repair the brain,” said lead researcher Claire Sexton, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford in England.

“It follows that if sleep is disrupted, then processes that help restore and repair the brain are interrupted and may be less effective, leading to greater rates of decline in brain volume,” she explained.

But it’s just as likely, she said, that the deterioration in the brain also contributes to difficulty sleeping.

“It may be that greater rates of decline in brain volumes make it more difficult for a person to get a good night’s sleep,” said Sexton, adding she suspects the problems run in both directions.

While a visiting research fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway, Sexton and her fellow researchers gave brain scans to 147 Norwegian adults, average age 54, at the study’s start and an average of 3.5 years later.

At the time of the second scan, the adults also filled out questionnaires about their sleep quality, including how long and how well they slept, how long it took to fall asleep, how much time in bed was spent actually asleep, how often they woke up, how sleepy they were during the day and whether they used sleeping medications. Participants took an average of 20 minutes to fall asleep and slept an average of seven hours a night, the researchers found.

After making adjustments for differences in the participants’ physical activity, weight and blood pressure — which have been shown to affect sleep quality — the researchers compared changes in participants’ brain scans and reported their findings online Sept. 3 inNeurology.

In those with poor sleep quality, the researchers saw shrinkage in one part of their frontal cortex and some atrophy, or deterioration, throughout three other parts of the brain, including parts involved with reasoning, planning, memory and problem-solving.

The study didn’t test participants’ thinking skills, so it couldn’t prove that poor sleep or brain shrinkage was linked to poor memory or difficulty thinking. However, past research has found links between declining memory and decreases in brain volume.

“We often correlate brain shrinkage with losing brain tissue, and assume that that isn’t advantageous as you get older,” said Anton Porsteinsson, director of Alzheimer’s disease care, research and education at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.

“Sleep disturbance is such a common symptom among the general population, and it often becomes worse as you age,” he said. “There is growing data to suggest that sleep disturbance may be a risk factor for poor outcomes in terms of brain cells and other medical issues as well.”

The correlation was only with poor quality of sleep, not shorter sleep. The reduced brain size in poor sleepers was seen across all ages, but the correlation was stronger among adults over 60, the study found.

“What this study signals to me is that [good bedtime habits] and good sleep matters,” Porsteinsson said. “Whether that has to be natural sleep or whether we can use medications to enhance sleep has not been answered, but it’s probably best to improve your natural sleep patterns.”

Sexton made several suggestions for those hoping for better sleep. Besides talking to a doctor about sleep problems, she recommended having a bedtime routine and going to bed at the same time each night.

Other tips include removing gadgets such as smartphones and tablets from the bedroom, not checking emails right before sleep, being physically active during the day, avoiding caffeine late in the day and spending time outside in the sunlight each day.

Learning rewires the brain.


In the process, some of the brain’s nerve cells change shape or even fire backwards

An artist’s depiction of an electrical signal (yellow-orange regions) shooting down a nerve cell and then off to others in the brain. Learning strengthens the paths that these signals take, essentially “wiring” certain common paths through the brain.

Musicians, athletes and quiz bowl champions all have one thing in common: training. Learning to play an instrument or a sport requires time and patience. It is all about steadily mastering new skills. The same is true when it comes to learning information — preparing for that quiz bowl, say, or studying for a big test.

As teachers, coaches and parents everywhere like to say: Practice makes perfect.

Blood flow reveals activity in the brain. Here, blue highlights attention-related areas that had greater blood flow when people first learned a task. Blood flow decreased in those areas as they became more familiar with the task. Red shows mind-wandering areas that became more active as the task was mastered.

Doing something over and over again doesn’t just make it easier. It actually changes the brain. That may not come as a surprise. But exactly how that process happens has long been a mystery. Scientists have known that the brain continues to develop through our teenage years. But these experts used to think that those changes stopped once the brain matured.

No more.

Recent data have been showing that the brain continues to change over the course of our lives. Cells grow. They form connections with new cells. Some stop talking to others. And it’s not just nerve cells that shift and change as we learn. Other brain cells also get into the act.

Scientists have begun unlocking these secrets of how we learn, not only in huge blocks of tissue, but even within individual cells.

Rewiring

The brain is not one big blob of tissue. Just six to seven weeks into the development of a human embryo, the brain starts to form into different parts. Later, these areas will each take on different roles. Consider the prefrontal cortex. It’s the region right behind your forehead. That’s where you solve problems. Other parts of the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) help process sights and sounds. Deep in the brain, the hippocampus helps store memories. It also helps you figure out where things are located around you.

Scientists can see what part of the brain is active by using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. At the heart of every fMRI device is a strong magnet. It allows the device to detect changes in blood flow. Now, when a scientist asks a volunteer to perform a particular task — such as playing a game or learning something new — the machine reveals where blood flow within the brain is highest. That boost in blood flow highlights which cells are busy working.

Chemical messengers — called neurotransmitters — leave the end of one nerve cell and jump across a gap to stimulate the next nerve cell.

Many brain scientists use fMRI to map brain activity. Others use another type of brain scan, known as positron emission tomography, or PET. Experts have performed dozens of such studies. Each looked at how specific areas of the brain responded to specific tasks.

Nathan Spreng did something a little different: He decided to study the studies. Spreng is a neuroscientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. A neuroscientist studies the brain and nervous system. Spreng wanted to know how the brain changes — how it morphs a little bit — as we learn.

He teamed up with two other researchers. Together, they analyzed 38 of those earlier studies. Each study had used an fMRI or PET scan to probe which regions of the brain turn on when people learn new tasks.

Areas that allow people to pay attention became most active as someone began a new task. But those attention areas became less active over time. Meanwhile, areas of the brain linked with daydreaming and mind-wandering became more active as people became more familiar with a task.

“At the beginning, you require a lot of focused attention,” Spreng says. Learning to swing a bat requires a great deal of focus when you first try to hit a ball. But the more you practice, Spreng says, the less you have to think about what you’re doing.

Extensive practice can even allow a person to perform a task while thinking about other things — or about nothing at all. A professional pianist, for example, can play a complex piece of music without thinking about which notes to play next. In fact, stopping to think about the task can actually interfere with a flawless performance. This is what musicians, athletes and others often refer to as being “in the zone.”

This neuron from a mouse brain shows the bulbous cell body with a single axon projecting from it. As the brain learns, neurons relay information faster and more efficiently. The mouse was genetically modified to make a fluorescent protein that glows green.

COURTESY OF HADLEY BERGSTROM/NIAAA

Cells that fire together, wire together

Spreng’s findings involve the whole brain. However, those changes actually reflect what’s happening at the level of individual cells.

The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells, called neurons. These cells are chatty. They “talk” to each other, mostly using chemical messengers. Incoming signals cause a listening neuron to fire or send signals of its own. A cell fires when an electrical signal travels through it. The signal moves away from what is called the cell body, down through a long structure called an axon. When the signal reaches the end of the axon, it triggers the release of those chemical messengers. The chemicals then leap across a tiny gap. This triggers the next cell to fire. And on it goes.

As we learn something new, cells that send and receive information about the task become more and more efficient. It takes less effort for them to signal the next cell about what’s going on. In a sense, the neurons become wired together.

Spreng detected that wiring. As cells in a brain area related to some task became more efficient, they used less energy to chat. This allowed more neurons in the “daydreaming” region of the brain to rev up their activity.

Neurons can signal to several neighbors at once. For example, one neuron might transmit information about the location of a baseball pitch that’s flying toward you. Meanwhile, other neurons alert your muscles to get ready to swing the bat. When those neurons fire at the same time, connections between them strengthen. That improves your ability to connect with the ball.

Learning while you slumber

The brain doesn’t shut down overnight. In fact, catching some zzz’s can dramatically improve learning. That’s because as we sleep, our brains store memories and new information from the previous day. So a poor night’s sleep can hurt our ability to remember new things. Until recently, however, researchers didn’t know why.

The hippocampus, shown here in a mouse, is a brain region involved in storing memories. The mouse was genetically modified with a gene that creates a green fluorescent protein that causes the neurons to glow green.

COURTESY OF HADLEY BERGSTROM/NIAAA

A group of scientists at the University of Heidelberg in Germany provided the first clues. Specific cells in the hippocampus — that region involved in storing memories — fired when mice slept, the scientists found. But the cells didn’t fire normally. Instead, electrical signals spontaneously fired near the middle of an axon, then traveled back in the direction of the cell body. In other words, the cells fired in reverse.This boosted learning. It did so by making connections between cells stronger. Again, the action sort of wired together the cells. Research by Olena Bukalo and Doug Fields showed how it happens. They are neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md.

Working with tissue from rat brains, the scientists electrically stimulated nerve axons. Carefully, they stimulated them just in the middle. The electrical signals then traveled in reverse. That is just what the German scientists had seen.

This reverse signaling made the neuron less sensitive to signals from its neighbors, the experts found. This made it harder for the cell to fire, which gave the neuron a chance to recharge, Bukalo explains. When she then applied electric stimulation near the cell body, the neuron fired. And it did so even more strongly than it had before.

Cells involved in learning new information are most likely to fire in reverse during sleep, Bukalo says. The next day, they will be wired more tightly to each other. Although scientists don’t know for certain, it is likely that repeated cycles of reverse firing create a strong network of neurons. The neurons relay information faster and more efficiently, just as Spreng found in his study. As a result, those networks reflect an improvement in understanding or physical skill.

Firing faster

Neurons are the best-known cells in the brain. But they are far from the only ones. Another type, called glia, actually makes up a whopping 85 percent of brain cells. For a long time, scientists thought that glia simply held neurons together. (Indeed, “glia” take their name from the Greek word for glue.) But recent research by Fields, Bukalo’s colleague at the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, reveals that glial cells also become active during learning.

One type of glial cell wraps around nerve axons. (Note: Not all axons have this wrapping.) These wrapping cells create what’s known as a myelin sheath. Myelin is made of protein and fatty substances. It insulates the axons. Myelin is a bit like the plastic coating that jackets the copper wires in your home. That insulation prevents electrical signals from inappropriately leaking out of one wire (or axon) and into another.

In axons, the myelin sheath has a second role: It actually speeds the electrical signals along. That’s because glial cells force a signal to jump from one spot on the axon to the next. As it hops between glial cells, the signal moves faster. It’s kind of like flying from one spot to the next, instead of taking the train.

The green, octopus-like cell in the center is a type of glial cell that creates the myelin sheath. Here, the tips of the tentacles are in the early stages of wrapping around several different axons. As the brain learns, the glial cells grow, change and help increase the efficiency with which axons move signals.

Fields has found that when new skills are learned, the amount of myelin insulating an axon increases. This happens as the size of individual glial cells increases. New glial cells also may be added to bare axons. These changes improve the ability of a neuron to signal. And that leads to better learning.

A thicker myelin sheath helps improve all types of brainy tasks. These include reading, creating memories, playing a musical instrument and more. A thicker sheath is also linked with better decision-making.

Nerve cells continue to add myelin well into adulthood, as our brains continue to grow and develop. The prefrontal cortex, for example — that area where decisions are made — gains myelin well into a person’s 20s. This may explain why teens don’t always make the best decisions. They’re not finished sheathing their nerve cells. But there is hope. And getting enough sleep certainly can help. Glial cells, like neurons, seem to change most during certain stages of sleep.

Exactly what causes the glial cells to change remains a mystery. Fields and his colleagues are hard at work to figure that out. It’s exciting, he says, to launch into a whole new field of research.

Slow and steady

These changes in the brain allow for faster, stronger signaling between neurons as the brain gains new skills. But the best way to speed up those signals is to introduce new information to our noggins — slowly.

Many students instead try to memorize lots of information the night before a test. Cramming may get them through the test. But the students won’t remember the information for very long, says Hadley Bergstrom. He is a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Rockville, Md.

These musicians with the Vancouver Youth Symphony may not know it, but learning to play an instrument will remodel the brain. With practice, anyone who has mastered a skill can perform it well — even without having to pay attention.

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It’s important to spread out learning over many days, his work shows. That means learning a little bit at a time. Doing so allows links between neurons to steadily strengthen. It also allows glial cells time to better insulate axons.Even an “aha!” moment — when something suddenly becomes clear — doesn’t come out of nowhere. Instead, it is the result of a steady accumulation of information. That’s because adding new information opens up memories associated with the task. Once those memory neurons are active, they can form new connections, explains Bergstrom. They also can form stronger connections within an existing network. Over time, your level of understanding increases until you suddenly “get” it.

Like Fields and Bukalo, Bergstrom stresses the importance of sleep in forming the new memories needed to gain knowledge. So the next time you study for a test, start learning new information a few days ahead of time. The night before, give your brain a break and go to bed early. It will allow your brain a chance to cement that new information into its cells. And that should boost your chances of doing well.

Power Words

axon  The long, tail-like extension of a neuron that conducts electrical signals away from the cell.

cell body  The compact section of a neuron (nerve cell) where its nucleus is located.

cortex  The outermost layer of neural tissue of the brain.

fMRI  (short for functional magnetic resonance imaging)  A special type of machine used to study brain activity. It uses a strong magnetic field to monitor blood flow in the brain. Tracking the movement of blood can tell researchers which brain regions are active.

glia  Non-nerve cells, these make up 85 percent of the cells in the brain. Some glial cells wrap around axons. This speeds the rate of neural signaling and helps to prevent confusing “cross-talk” between neighboring nerve cells.

hippocampus  A seahorse-shaped region of the brain. It is thought to be the center of emotion, memory and the involuntary nervous system.

myelin  (as inmyelin sheath)  A layer of fatty cells, called glia, that wraps around nerve-cell axons. The myelin sheath insulates axons, speeding the rate at which signals speed down them. The addition of this sheath is a process known as myelination ormyelinating.

neuron (or nerve cell)  Any of the impulse-conducting cells that make up the brain, spinal column and nervous system. These specialized cells transmit information to other neurons in the form of electrical signals.

neuroscience  Science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

PET  (short for positron emission tomography)  A technology that uses radiation to create three-dimensional images of the inside of the body. The individual receives a radioactive “tracer” chemical in the blood that shows up during the scan. As the tracer moves through the body, it will accumulate in certain organs. This allows researchers and doctors to see create X-ray-like details of those organs.

prefrontal cortex  A region containing some of the brain’s gray matter. Located behind the forehead, it plays a role in making decisions and other complex mental activities, in emotions and in behaviors.

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