The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

October 6, 2022

Memory recall to the beat of a different drum

If music is food for the soul, then its prep kitchen is in the brain. That’s where all the dexterous fingerings, subtle rhythmic sensitivities, and song memory recall are coordinated. Not surprisingly, musical training is known to stimulate certain cognitive abilities useful for playing, like sensory perception, selective attention, and short-term memory, which is why music therapy is good for seniors. But a compelling, unanswered question in neuroscience is whether music training makes you a better thinker in general or just a better musician. Now a small, randomized clinical trial suggests it does indeed confer a general benefit. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco had 47 non-musicians aged 60–79 undergo eight weeks of either rhythm training or a less cognitively demanding word search training and then do computerized facial recall tasks while their brains were monitored with EEG. Musical training increased activity in the brain’s superior parietal regions and improved the ability to recall faces, the study showed. PNAS

The stem cell diet

The dream of developing an “exercise drug” to help people maintain fitness by mimicking the molecular effect of a vigorous workout or a sensible diet is a great idea confounded by one crucial thing: It’s so freaking complicated. Fitness involves complex physiology, and exercise induces widespread, diverse, and incompletely understood molecular responses in multiple tissues across the human body. How do you even begin to target the right biomolecules pharmaceutically? According to researchers at MIT and Harvard, one key starting point may be rare mesenchymal stem cells found in visceral fat and skeletal muscles. Analyzing more than 1,000 genes across tissues in mice that were impacted by the opposing effects of exercise and high-fat diets, the scientists uncovered multi-tissue crosstalk between mesenchymal stem cells. These cells may play a previously underappreciated role in the body’s response to obesity and exercise training. Cell Metabolism

How a spore decides when it’s safe to reanimate

When bacteria need to survive starvation, drought, or other harsh environments, they make spores—hardy little buggers that can survive the extremes until they find a nice, wet-warm clime in which to grow. But how do biochemically inert spores know when it’s safe to come out of their shell? It turns out they use a snap decision-making mechanism similar to how neurons fire, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Studying thousands of individual spores of Bacillus subtilis, they found the bacteria store tiny amounts of electrochemical potential in the form of gradients of ions across their membranes, the way capacitors on circuit boards store charges. Exposure to nutrients, indicating the presence of food, releases the ions and the stored electrochemical energy. That triggers a “go” response and kickstarts the spore out of dormancy and into germination. Science

Vascular health in the eye of the beholder

Researchers at St George’s University of London have piloted a low-cost, potentially easy way to assess a person’s vascular health and better predict their risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. In the largest ever population-based study of its type, the scientists accessed ophthalmology exams taken from 88,052 middle-aged people in the UK Biobank. They trained an AI to look for pathological signs of disease in images collected during routine eye exams of their retinas, the blood vessel network in the back of the eye. Their findings suggest retinal images could be good prognostic biomarkers of vascular disease and that AI analyses of them could guide treatment. That still has to be proven in clinical trials, but the idea carries great promise because it would provide a simple way of gauging cardiovascular health. British Journal of Ophthalmology

A bioresorbable implant for pain treatment

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois, Sungkyunkwan University in Korea, and Washington University in St. Louis have created a new implantable electric device for treating pain and demonstrated it works in mice. The device is designed to be implanted under the skin, surrounding peripheral nerve fibers that transmit pain signals to the brain. There it locally stimulates those nerves and blocks them from sending pain signals to the brain. Other devices exist that do the same thing, but the new device is the first made entirely from bioresorbable materials, which means that it doesn’t have to be surgically removed and will disappear harmlessly in the body after a period of time. It’s “an attractive alternative to pharmacological agents for the treatment of acute pain,” the researchers write, and may “eliminate the need for use of highly addictive drugs such as opioids.” Science Advances

The psychology of FOMO

The irony of our modern, digital age is that even though our devices allow us to be ever-more connected, that very connectivity often serves as a hard reminder of just how alone we really are. Fear of missing out (FOMO) rears its bitter head whenever we scroll a friend’s feed and find ourselves left out of some gathering or activity. Now psychologists at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven are reporting that those feelings of social abandonment can have dramatic consequences for young people. They polled 472 college students and analyzed their answers to questionnaires using machine learning. The analysis showed that higher levels of FOMO are a predictor of problematic “maladaptive” behaviors like alcohol and drug use, academic misconduct, and breaking the law. FOMO screening could identify college students at risk of harmful behavior, they suggest. PLOS ONE