Tiny Electric Current Makes Others Look Better

PHOTO: Model of a human brain
Gregor Schuster/Getty Images

Scientists at the California Institute of Technology have figured out how to make you look better in the eyes of your mate. All you have to do is run an extremely weak electrical current through a key part of your lover's brain, and you will look better than you did before.

For a few minutes, at least.

But these folks aren't trying to create a love drug. They are developing the technology that may help unravel some of the deepest secrets of the human brain, possibly leading to new treatments for some of life's most tragic diseases.

And it all depends on a surprisingly simple gizmo that can be powered by a 9-volt battery. The instrument sends a tiny current – only 2 milliamps, or 10,000 times weaker than you can get from an ordinary household outlet – through the brains of volunteers on Caltech's campus in Pasadena, Calif.

To read more about this subject, check out Lee Dye's column on Sunday.

In the meantime, here's a look at some of the other subjects Dye has tackled.

PHOTO: Owners of old pets can face difficult choices if the pet is suffering.
Getty Images
How to Tell If It's Time to Euthanize Your Pet

How do you know when it's time to let go of your pet?

Nearly all of us have gone through the process, trying to decide if the time has come to let go. It's one of the hardest decisions we ever have to make. Pets are not just other animals. They become members of our family, soul brothers, devoted companions.

It can be a very lonely decision, but researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are developing the tools we need to help us make the right choice. They have teamed veterinarians with pet owners to find out which symptoms observed by the owners are supported by the science observed by the vets.

"The owner knows the pet, and the clinician knows the science," veterinarian Maria Lliopoulou of MSU said in releasing a study.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, followed 29 dogs from six months prior to a diagnosis of cancer and through weeks of chemotherapy to see which signs of distress, as observed by the owners, were clear indicators of the seriousness of the pet's condition. They found three areas in which the clinicians and the owners were in close agreement.

How to Tell If It's Time to Euthanize Your Pet

PHOTO: "Crazy" ants are on the march with a taste for everything from livestock to electrical equipment.
University of Texas, Austin
New Ant Species Arrives With a Taste for Electronics, Scientists Say

There's a new player on the continent and it is spreading damage from Texas to Florida in a scary assault that sounds like a really bad movie.

"Crazy" ants on the march have a taste for everything from livestock to electrical equipment. They are so obnoxious that many residents yearn for the good old days when all they had to fight was red ants that are quickly being wiped out by the crazies.

The tiny insect is called "crazy" because the trail it leaves as it eats its way across the country is so erratic it appears the ants have tipped the bottle too many times.

Scientists know it as Nylanderia fulva, but its commonly accepted name is "tawny crazy ant," formerly known as the raspberry crazy ant.

New Ant Species Arrives With a Taste for Electronics, Scientists Say

PHOTO: Speed dating
Speed Dating? Watch Your Mouth

Do you know how long it takes for a guy and a gal to "click" in the first stage of building a bond that may lead to a lasting relationship? Seconds, according to numerous studies.

But new research suggests that connection can be strengthened – or blown away - within four or five minutes, because what people say, and how they say it, may be nearly as important as how they look.

"We've all met somebody we thought looked amazing, and then they open their mouth and you realize, wow, that was different than I thought," sociologist Dan McFarland of Stanford University, coauthor of a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, said in a telephone interview. McFarland teamed up with Dan Jurafsky, professor of linguistics at Stanford, to study "speed dating," the current rage among many singles, and more specifically, the role of communications during that brief encounter.

Speed Dating? Watch Your Mouth

Seahorse Armor Inspire Robotic Designs
Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego
Flexible Armor: Mysterious Seahorse Astounds Scientists

The mythical seahorse, a tiny fish that swims in a vertical position and looks a lot like a miniature horse, has astounded researchers by its ability to withstand crushing forces that would destroy nearly every other living creature. And it just may help the researchers borrow from the world of biology to solve some really tough problems in the world of engineering.

The seahorse is the latest in a growing list of organisms in the relatively new field of biomimetics. If you are trying to solve an engineering problem, find something in nature that has already done it, then steal its secrets.

Engineers at the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego, have been studying several animals to see how they protect themselves.

Flexible Armor: Mysterious Seahorse Astounds Scientists

PHOTO: The American crow, which in so many ways is so much like humans, is moving from the countryside to the big city, and like humans, it is paying a price.
Getty Images
Can the Crow Teach Us to Save Our Cities?

The American crow, which in so many ways is so much like humans, is moving from the countryside to the big city, and like humans, it is paying a price.


Crows showed little taste for the urban environment until four or five decades ago, when they began a continuing migration into suburbia, and even into the heart of megalopolises that many humans would love to leave. Why are they doing that, and how do they deal with the stress coming from noise, congestion, and too many people?

Can What We Learn From the Crow Save Our Cities?

PHOTO: In one ambitious study, British scientists found that female Blue-Tits prefer having their eggs fertilized by a male other than their social partner.
Getty Images
Why Birds That Mate for Life Still Cheat

Here's the warm and fuzzy part of this column: most birds really do mate for life. But here's the cold side: They mess around. And here's the switch: Blame the ladies. Ever since Charles Darwin postulated it would be to a bird's evolutionary advantage to stick with the same mate for its entire life, poets and novelists and even scientists have thought that meant they would remain faithful to the same mate, both sexually and socially.

But that sweet song began to sour a few years ago when scientists, armed with the powerful tools of modern genetics, began capturing birds around the world, and borrowing eggs from active nests, and even following the lives of the hatched chicks to see what was really going on in the avian bedroom.

DNA Shows It: Birds Are Promiscuous

PHOTO: Chimps and bonobos and other primates clearly show empathy with others who are suffering.
Getty Images
Are We Moral Because We Believe in God, or Do We Believe in God Because We Are Moral?

Frans de Waal argues in his latest book that the answer is clearly the latter. The seeds for moral behavior preceded the emergence of our species by millions of years, and the need to codify that behavior so that all would have a clear blueprint for morality led to the creation of religion, he argues.

Most religious leaders would argue it's the other way around: Our sense of what's moral came from God, and without God there would be no morality.

But this is a column about science, not religion, so it's worth asking if de Waal's own research supports his provocative conclusions, documented in the newly released book, "The Bonobo and the Atheist."

Do We Need God to be Moral? Ask the Apes

PHOTO: Men aren't as bad as you think.
Getty Images
If Men Aren't So Bad, Thank Testosterone

Hey brother, feel sexually drawn to your best friend's wife? Testosterone, the bad boy among male sex hormones, is supposed to make it easier for you to ignore your friendship and make your move.

However, scientists at the University of Missouri have found that men are biologically inclined toward avoiding a close encounter with the mate of a buddy, and it works the other way around if she is not committed to a friend.

Testosterone seems to be depressed if a friend is involved, but elevated if there is no close relationship, a condition the scientists describe as a "striking reversal" in the role of this powerful hormone. The study was published in the journal Human Nature.

"Men's testosterone levels generally increase when they are interacting with a potential sexual partner or an enemy's mate," anthropologist Mark Flinn, lead author of the study, said in releasing the report. "However, our finding suggests that men's minds have evolved to foster a situation where the stable pair bonds of friends are respected."

If Men Aren't So Bad, Thank Testosterone

PHOTO: Why is your dog laughing at you?
Getty Images
Why Is Your Dog Laughing?

Does your pet talk to you? Probably, but there's a problem. You don't speak the same language.

That's a little inconvenient when it comes to the family mutt, but it could pose a major problem for researches around the world.

The workhorse in scientific laboratories is the lowly rodent and it has helped illuminate everything from diseases to drugs to human emotions, but new research suggests scientists have not been getting the full story. It turns out that rats speak a language that, until now, was understood only by other rats.

Why Is Your Dog Laughing?

PHOTO: The prairie dog may be losing a long battle to survive.
Getty Images
Can the Prairie Dog Be Saved?

John Hoogland dragged his new bride up the side of a mountain a while back to watch a colony of prairie dogs go about a day's work. Within about 10 minutes, the young graduate student concluded he could "study these things for 10 years."

It's 40 years later now, and he's still studying them, turning up dirty secrets that nobody knew were there until he started spending five months every spring watching the dramas unfold in one of nature's more complex societies.

The prairie dog may be losing a long battle to survive, threatened constantly by the changing Western landscape and everything from fleas to the bubonic plague to its own kinfolk. It turns out there is a nasty side to the story of a highly social animal known for public displays of affection and cooperation.

Can the Prairie Dog Be Saved?

PHOTO: Houses are damaged along Iowa Avenue east of downtown Iowa City, Iowa, April 14, 2006, after a tornado hit the city. A recent study explains how people get on with their lives after such a harrowing experience.
Jason A. Cook/Iowa City Press-Citizen/AP Photo
Tornado Survivors Become More Confident, Study Says

Jerry Suls had just walked out of a restaurant with a friend from out of town when the visitor pointed over his shoulder and said, "Gee, Jerry, there's a funnel cloud behind you." Moments later, the black tornado hit the edge of the college town of Iowa City, Iowa, and then hopscotched across town, touching down at least seven times and wiping out homes and dreams as it ripped the community apart.

How do people get on with their lives after such a harrowing experience? Suls, a University of Iowa psychologist, began a research project to answer his question.

And the answer, according to his study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that after they survive a brush with death, they think a tornado is not likely to hurt them in the future. In fact, they think they have a much better chance of surviving a tornado than most other people who have been through less.

Tornado Survivors Become More Confident, Study Says

PHOTO: Scientists at two of the world's leading research institutions, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, achieved what Berkeley is calling a "major advance," if not a breakthrough, in the search for a way to stem the ravages of time.
Getty Images/Comstock Images
Fountain of Youth: Progress in Slowing Aging, at Least in Mice

Did you see the Super Bowl commercial showing those old codgers acting like teenagers? It's enough to make you turn against the whole idea of extending the human lifespan.

However, scientists the world over are busy in their labs trying to figure out just where Ponce de Leon left his elusive fountain of youth. They may never find it, but new research suggests that even if we can't live a few hundred years, we may at least be able to reverse some of the degenerative effects of what scientists call the "normal aging process."

Fountain of Youth: Progress in Slowing Aging, at Least in Mice

PHOTO: Black-throated blue warbler
Brian Small/University of Southern California
Radio and TV Towers Killing Songbirds; Solution Is Simple

Giant TV and radio towers that have been blamed for nearly 7 million bird deaths each year are doing the most damage to species that can hardly afford the loss, according to a new study.

At least 97 percent of the birds that crash into the towers, or the guy wires that hold them up, are the tiny songbirds – mostly warblers – that are considered "birds of conservation concern" in the United States and Canada, according to the study, published in the journal Biological Conservation. Each year, according to the study, the species yellow rail loses about 9 percent of its total population because of communications towers, many of which are taller than the Empire State Building.

Radio and TV Towers Killing Songbirds; Solution Is Simple

PHOTO: Researchers found that when people were distracted, even for two seconds, they easily lost track of where they were in a sequence they had to perform.
Getty Images
Dangers of Distraction: Even a Phone's Ring Can Double Errors

Noise and distractions are constant in our lives these days, ranging from jangling cellphones to babies crying. Annoying, to be sure. But they can also be much more.

They can be deadly.

Even a distraction that lasts only two seconds can double the number of errors made while performing a series of tasks that must be done in a precise sequence, like preparing an aircraft for flight or performing surgery, according to new research from Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. If the noise lasts four seconds, the number of errors triples.

Dangers of Distraction: Even a Phone's Ring Can Double Errors

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...