Sheep's shins and giant sponges
Monday 16 September 1996
It may be possible to repair deafness with a biological treatment which would be more effective than electronic "cochlear implants", said Dr Carole Hackney of Keele University. Scientists expect to be able to stimulate the regrowth of the hair cells in the ear, whose destruction is the main cause of deafness. Recent research has shown that this can occur spontaneously in animals in certain circumstances.
Deep sea dive
The biggest mass extinction of all time, 250 million years ago, was associated with rapid sea-level rise and a dramatic drop in oxygen levels on the seabed, geologists at the University of Birmingham have concluded after examining rocks in Italy, Pakistan and China. The great die-off at the end of the Permian Era is thought to have killed off more than three-quarters of all plant and animal species then living on the planet. The Birmingham scientists told the BA that their findings concerning the catastrophe did not rule out the possibility that massive volcanic eruptions were the prime cause.
They came at night
Claims of alien abductions may have arisen from people who were dreaming while half-asleep, according to Dr Susan Blackmore of the University of the West of England. The effect of "sleep paralysis" - in which one half- wake from a dream without being able to move - can confuse people, and lead them to claim they have been taken away by aliens and held captive. But they then remember their nonsense dreams, rather than forgetting them, as usually happens on waking up.
Prehistoric humans appear to have played instruments made from goose wings and sheep's shinbones, in which notes could be "bent" like a jazz player's. The instruments date back as far as 20,000 BC, according to Dr Graeme Lawson of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge.
Sibling rivalry is the most common form of violence within families, according to Dr Kevin Browne of the University of Birmingham. Millions of people are going into hospital, he said, but the problem is "totally ignored".
The big squeeze
Deep-water sponges (see picture) are like the rainforests - they contain a huge range of potentially useful chemicals and drugs which have only just begun to be tapped, but their usefulness means they are threatened by human encroachment. A sponge called discodermia, which lives 1,000ft below the ocean surface, produces a chemical which is more effective than other known drugs against breast cancer. But, said Michelle Kelly-Borges of the Natural History Museum, "The major problem with doing trials of these products is that you can't get enough material without harvesting huge amounts of the sponges." It can take up to 10 years for a sponge to grow to the size of a fist, and then it would only produce a few millionths of a gram of the chemical, she said.
Listen with mother
Babies in the womb can distinguish between different sorts of music - and they seem to prefer the theme from Neighbours over Strauss's Blue Danube. "Their movements are certainly rhythmic," said Professor Peter Hepper, of Queen's University, Belfast. The babies are probably reacting to something about the bass sounds of the music, as the treble notes would be absorbed by the mother's skin and the fluid in the womb. The babies could also recognise the music after they were born, and became quiet when it was played to them. "Unfortunately for mothers, this pacifying effect only lasts once or twice," said Professor Hepper.
Schizophrenia, first described 100 years ago, is a genetically-linked disorder which is unique to humans and intrinsically linked to our development of language, argued Timothy Crow of Oxford University. "There is an interesting uniformity of symptoms and it seems to occur in all societies at the same rate," he said. "The conclusion is that it's something to do with what distinguishes us as a species - which is language." This would fit the common schizophrenic's complaint of hearing voices, he suggested. "But it is also interesting because it tells us something about how language is organised."
Coma patients may one day be able to communicate with the outside world through the monitoring of their brain waves, according to a team led by Dr Stephen Roberts from Imperial College. His team has developed neural networks capable of analysing the mix of electrical signals from a person's brain, and comparing them against normal brain functions. This would mean that people whose brains were still functioning, and who could hear what was happening around them would be able to react to outside stimuli, and distinguished from brain-dead patients.
Many well-known volcanoes are overdue for a cataclysmic eruption, including Mount Etna and Vesuvius in Italy. Professor Bill McGuire of University College London said that, however Vesuvius erupts, "the reactivation will require the evacuation of 800,000 people." He said that we should monitor volcanoes more closely; presently only one in five is.
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