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Russell Foster: Why do we sleep?
Russell Foster is a circadian neuroscientist: He studies the sleep cycles of the brain. And he asks: What do we know about sleep? Not a lot, it turns out, for something we do with one-third of our lives. In this talk, Foster shares three popular theories about why we sleep, busts some myths about how much sleep we need at different ages — and hints at some bold new uses of sleep as a predictor of mental health.
Russell Foster studies sleep and its role in our lives, examining how our perception of light influences our sleep-wake rhythms.
WHY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO HIM?
Much as your ear does double duty (balance plus hearing), Russell Foster posits that the eye has two jobs: creating vision, but also — as a completely separate function — managing our perception of light and dark, providing the clues that our circadian rhythms need to regulate sleep-wake cycles. He and his team at the University of Oxford are exploring a third kind of photoreceptor in the eye: not a rod or a cone but a photosensitive retinal ganglion cell (pRGC) that detects light/dark and feeds that information to the circadian system. As Foster explains: “Embedded within our genes, and almost all life on Earth, are the instructions for a biological clock that marks the passage of approximately 24 hours.” Light and dark help us synchronize this inner clock with the outside world.
The research on light perception hits home as we age — faced with fading vision, we also risk disrupted sleep cycles, which have very serious consequences, including lack of concentration, depression and cognitive decline. The more we learn about how our eyes and bodies create our sleep cycles, the more seriously we can begin to take sleep as a therapy.
How to manually change a memory: Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu
Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu shoot laser beams into the brains of living mice to activate and manipulate their memories. In a funny and — perhaps — unnerving talk from TEDxBoston, they explain the fundamental principles behind their experiments and broach the big questions that future advancements in this line of research may force us to answer.
When we close our eyes and think back to our childhood, to our first kiss, or to this morning’s breakfast, our brains perform the remarkable task of mental time travel and thereby enrich our lives with memories. How does neural machinery give rise to something as seemingly ephemeral as memory? Recently, Hollywood inspired our imaginations by proposing that memories could be artificially triggered (think Total Recall), erased (think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), or even implanted (think Inception). Now, neuroscience has plucked these ideas from the tree of science fiction and grounded them in experimental reality. The catch: our subjects are the movie stars of the laboratory setting–rodents. This talk will introduce how revolutionary techniques from our lab have made it possible to isolate and manipulate specific memories at the level of single brain cells with just flickers of light, as well as the societal ramifications of doing so.
Why All Good, and Some Bad, Research Is Improbable: Marc Abrahams
Marc Abrahams, MC of the infamous Ig Nobel Awards and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, focusses on research that makes you laugh, and then think! You’re never going to look at science research quite the same after his talk.
Two young scientists break down plastics with bacteria
Once it’s created, plastic (almost) never dies. While in 12th grade Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao went in search of a new bacteria to biodegrade plastic — specifically by breaking down phthalates, a harmful plasticizer. They found an answer surprisingly close to home.
Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao have identified a new bacteria that breaks down nasty compounds called phthalates, common to flexible plastics and linked to health problems. And they’re still teenagers.
WHY YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM?
After a visit to a plastic-filled waste transfer station last year, students Miranda Wang andJeanny Yao learned that much of the plastic in trash may not degrade for 5,000 years. Synthesized into plastics are phthalates, compounds that make shower curtain liners, food wraps and other products bendable but may also adversely impact human reproductive development and health. As plastics slowly break down, these phthalates would leach into the surrounding environment.
So, the two young scientists tackled the problem and ultimately discovered strains of bacteria that have the potential to naturally degrade phthalates. Their work earned a regional first place in British Columbia for the 2012 Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge Canada, as well as a special award for the most commercial potential at the contest’s finals.
Sniffing out schizophrenia using nose cell samples
June 26 – The human nose may hold the key to diagnosing schizophrenia, according to a team of US-Israeli researchers. They say that biological markers for the disease exist in nerve cells from the upper nasal cavity near the brain, a discovery that could lead to biological diagnosis for schizophrenia and the development of drugs to treat it.