Scientific discoveries this week: 1/20/14

#1: Madison, Wisconsin—Learning Comes at a Cost: Sleep
The purpose of sleep perplexes scientists, and though there are common theories, none of them have been proven as fact. However, a recent study may hold a key to understanding the need for getting enough shut-eye every night. Dr. Giulio Tononi and Dr. Chiara Cirelli, leading sleep scientists at the University of Wisconsin, recently published their findings on the importance of sleep to learning in the journal Neuron. The scientists developed the synaptic homeostasis sleep, or “SHY” hypothesis. SHY states that the importance of sleep is in the abilities to save energy by weakening brain cell connections, avoid stress on the cellular level, and maintain neurons’ ability to respond to stimuli. According to Tononi, sleep is the price the brain pays for learning and memory. “During wake, learning strengthens the synaptic connections throughout the brain, increasing the need for energy and saturating the brain with new information,” Tononi said. “Sleep allows the brain to reset, helping integrate, newly learned material with consolidated memories, so the brain can begin anew the next day.”

#2: United Kingdom—Massive Trench Under Ice Discovered in Antarctica
A team of experts from various United Kingdom universities and organizations including the British Antarctic Survey recently discovered the Ellsworth Subglacial Highlands in Antarctica. These highlands appear to be an ancient mountain range hidden beneath the Antarctic ice. Researchers found the deepest trough to be more than 2000 meters below sea level. The range was discovered by analyzing existing data and by gathering new data via ice-penetrating radars. Dr. Neil Ross, lead author of the published findings and professor at Newcastle University, categorized finding the hidden mountain range as “incredibly serendipitous” and an indicator to “how little we still know about the surface of our own planet.”

#3: Netherlands—Working Organelle Developed for Plastic Cells
Researchers at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at Radboud University Nijmegen developed organelle for plastic cell that can carry out the chemical reactions necessary for a cell to function. Other groups are researching methods by which to develop artificial cells and organelle using everything from polymers to a solution that imitates cytoplasm. By developing a working imitation of a cell, researchers hope to gain a deeper understanding of the origin of life as well as looking at cell’s chemistry and biology.

#4: Arlington, Texas—Micro-Windmills May Hold Key for Energy Future
University of Texas at Arlington research associate Smitha Rao and electrical engineering professor J.C. Chiao may have a lightweight solution to the perpetually dying cell phones. Rao and Chiao developed a low-cost micro-windmill under 1.8 mm wide that can produce wind energy. Charging sleeves containing hundreds of the windmills could consequently be developed. “When the phone is out of battery power, all you need to do is to put on the sleeve, wave the phone in the air for a few minutes and you can use the phone again,” Chiao said. On a large scale, the energy produced by the micro-windmills could generate energy for an entire house or building.

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