Scientific discoveries this week: 12/3/12

Princeton, New Jersey – Facial expressions are often considered the most precise indicator of emotion in a person, but new studies indicate that our reliance on the face to read emotion in another person is likely to lead us astray. Hillel Aviezer, neurophysicist at Jerusalem University, conducted a study of Princeton University students, which involved showing them pictures of a group of professional tennis players right after they had either won or lost a tennis match. The students were split into three groups of 15 each, and were then showed pictures of the tennis players. The first group of students saw the head-to-toe pictures of the tennis players, the second just the bodies, and the third just the faces. Each student was instructed to rate the emotions in the players from 1 to 9, with 1 being negative and 9 being positive, and 5 neutral. The third group of students, who only saw the athlete’s faces, had trouble correctly identifying the emotion of the player, while the other two groups were correct nearly every time. While this does not mean that facial expressions are not useful in determining emotions, it does indicate that body language plays a significant role in determining the mental disposition of an individual.

Boulder, Colorado – New information from mineral samples in the Grand Canyon may indicate that popular estimates of its age are incorrect. Geologists at the University of Colorado in Boulder have been studying the concentrations of helium in calcium phosphates in the native rock of the canyon, which allows them to approximate how long the rocks have been there. When rock is hot, it releases helium to the atmosphere. When the rock cools, it stops releasing helium. This gives a timeframe for when the rock was deposited on the surface of the Earth by comparing how much helium is currently present to how much helium is typically present in a newly formed rock. The geologists studying these rocks have now estimated that the Grand canyon is closer to 70 million years old, than 15 million years, which is the popular belief. While this new method of measuring the age of the exposed rock is legitimate, it does not automatically discredit previous research, and the age of the Grand Canyon will likely be hotly debated for some time to come.

Geneva, Switzerland – Nile Crocodiles do not actually have scales on their heads, even though they have what appear to be scales. While the bodies of these creatures are covered with hard, angular plates of armor, the “scales” on the head are actually part of the crocodile’s skin, and the cracks that makes them look like scales are just expansion cracks. For a scale to be a scale, it has to be a hard layer on top of the skin. Usually scales fit together in a recognizable pattern, oftentimes forming symmetric patterns on either side of the body. In the case of the crocodile, the “scales” on the head have no symmetry and no clear pattern. Upon close examination, the researchers involved in the study of crocodile scales determined that the thick skin on the head of the crocodile forms hard, scale-like shapes through simple expansion cracking. As the crocodile grows, the thick armored skin cracks and fissures, giving the appearance of scales.

Atlanta, Georgia – Among the most recognized sleeping disorders in the United States is insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep as long as intended. Most insomniacs are treated with a drug that dampens neural activity. There are some people that have the opposite of insomnia, though, and this has been much more difficult to treat. The disorder, now known as hypersomnia, is a condition where people have a general sleepiness throughout the day and caffeine does little or nothing to affect their ability to stay awake and alert. Even after 10 hours of sound sleep they can take a nap after drinking a cup of coffee. A new study conducted by neurologist David Rye at Emory University in Atlanta suggests that the brain of hypersomniacs creates a type of sedative that dulls their neurotransmitters, causing daytime sleepiness. They are constantly producing a compound that behaves similarly to the active ingredient in drugs like Valium, which is a calming, sedative-like drug. Having discovered this, Rye decided to try using a drug that counteracts Valium. The drug, Flumazenil, is typically administered to people who have overdosed on Valium. Rye administered the drug to a test group of those suffering from hypersomnia, and they immediately improved to near-normal levels of alertness. The results have been positive and now Rye is pursuing more funding to continue his research and make this treatment a viable option for anyone with hypersomnia.

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