Science Friday

Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.


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Friday, May 30, 2014 Permalink

Science Friday: Touch, Laser Blasts, And Why Songs Get Stuck In Our Heads

Nerve cells are the communication link between the physical world and our brain. Reporting in Neuron, researchers describe neurons that may play a role in how we understand even the subtlest social interactions. Neuroscientist Francis McGlone describes this set of nerves and how it might affect our social development.
Stem cells are found throughout the body, including the brain, heart, skin, and bones. Although scientists still haven't pinpointed the exact role they play in maintaining, and possibly regenerating, our tissues and organs, one team recently switched on that healing process—by zapping dental stem cells with low-powered lasers. Reporting this week in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Harvard bioengineer Dave Mooney and his colleagues describe how laser light stimulated dental stem cells to produce dentin, the hard stuff underneath tooth enamel, in live rats and human in vitro cultures.
Certain tunes are more than just appealing—they seem to get “stuck” in our minds. Song fragments that we can’t stop humming are called “earworms.” Musical psychologist Elizabeth Margulis describes what might cause these tenacious tunes and why repetition in music is so catchy. (For more on earworms, check out this SciFri article.)
A recent study projects that by 2030, pancreatic cancer will become the second most deadly type of cancer in the U.S. after lung cancer. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, describes what’s known about this notoriously fast-spreading, yet slow-to-detect cancer, and whether new avenues of research, including genetic testing, may offer hope against the disease.
Nearly all the body's cells contain identical DNA. So why does a neuron grow up so differently than a liver cell? Proteins are the key, says Akhilesh Pandey, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University. This week, two papers in Nature(one by Pandey's team) catalog where in the body certain proteins are found. But what matters isn’t just where proteins show up—it's how they twist and fold, says David Pincus, a fellow at MIT's Whitehead Institute. Protein misfolding, for example, is a hallmark of neurodegenerative disease.
Nearly three months ago, a Malaysia Airlines flight lost contact with air traffic control and has yet to been found. Airline industry analyst Robert Mann discusses how an airplane could go missing and what standards could be put in place to prevent it from happening again.
In her new book, Me, Myself, and Why, science writer Jennifer Ouellette tackles one of the Big Questions: What makes “me” me? For Ouellette, probing the science of self meant taking personality tests, having her brain scanned and her genome sequenced—even dropping acid. She explains what she learned. (Read an excerpt from her book here.)