from the world's big
New study reveals that reincarnation is real — kind of
Nematodes demonstrate that neurons can influence offspring's genetics.
- Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes can transmit information about the environment through neurons to future generations.
- Research from Tel Aviv University pushes back against the "second law of biology," which states that heritable information is segregated from somatic influences.
- If applicable to humans, this research could have important uses in medicine.
A study at Tel Aviv University published in the journal Cell suggests reincarnation, or a phenomenon much like it, is real after all. Well, for germ cells. Nematodes (worms that contain nearly the same number of genes as humans) transmit information through neurons to future generations.
This is likely the reason many animals are born keenly aware of their environment. Insects must make haste upon breaking through their shell; certain mammals are engaged in a life or death struggle from their very first breath. We've long known animals are born with an internal guiding system helping them navigate environmental tyranny. This study details how this happens, for worms at least.
Professor Oded Rechavi, in the Department of Neurobiology at Tel Aviv University, explains:
"The mechanism is controlled by small RNA molecules, which regulate gene expression. We found that small RNAs convey information derived from neurons to the progeny and influence a variety of physiological processes, including the food-seeking behavior of the progeny."
Rechavi believes this research pushes back against biological dogma (the "Weissmann barrier") claiming that heritable information is segregated from somatic influences. The study details the worm's nervous system as being genetically encoded with both internal and external knowledge. Animals are born with a sense of place inherited from their parents.
Rechavi and team determined this by cutting off certain progeny's smelling abilities, which is necessary for identifying food sources.
"We discovered that synthesis of small RNAs in neurons is needed for the worm to efficiently be attracted to odors associated with essential nutrients — to look for food. The small RNAs produced in the parents' nervous system influenced this behavior, as well as the expression of many germline genes that persisted through at least three generations."
Whether or not the same mechanism works in humans remains to be seen. Unlike nematodes, we're notoriously slow developers. Babies are completely dependent on caretakers for years. In this regard, we're an exception in the animal kingdom. Genetic reincarnation in worms might not be applicable to humans.
Nematode or Roundworm (Nematoda)
Artwork by Rebecca Hardy (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Yet, if it is, Rechavi says it could have a very practical use in medicine. As physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The Gene, the booming field of genetics is helping us construct "a new epidemiology of self." He continues,
"We are beginning to describe illness, identity, affinity, temperament, preferences — and ultimately, fate and choice — in terms of genes and genomes."
If their evidence holds up in humans, Rechavi believes it could help doctors design better diagnostics and therapies. Identifying diseases earlier in life (maybe even before a child is born) increases their chance of survival, even, as it turns out, across multiple generations. It could, Rechavi concludes, "potentially influence an organism's evolutionary course."
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
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A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.
- A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
- More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
- The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
Professor Luis Escobar.
Credit: Virginia Tech
A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.
- Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
- Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
- Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.
Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.
The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.
An odd find
Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock
Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.
"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."
Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.
The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."
Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.
"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."
Why understanding memory matters
Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock
"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.
If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."
Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock
Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.
Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."
Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia
At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.
Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.
In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.
Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."
He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.