Issue 4

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In this issue:


  • Can meditation affect your brain? Read on to find out.

  • The never-ending argument about human embryo research and what to do as scientists create new ethical quandaries.

  • Ever wished you could just transfer your own memories to someone else's brain? Apparently some creatures can.


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That feeling when your hippie friend tells you to try “mindfulness training”

Don’t write them off just yet – they might have a point. A recent paper suggests that mindfulness training could affect how your brain responds to aggression.

…mindfulness training? Sounds like pseudoscience.

Not at all. Broadly speaking, mindfulness training teaches people to pay close attention to the present moment. The benefits of this practice are supported by scientific research. A common way to achieve mindfulness is through meditation, which has become increasingly popular in recent years.

You were saying something about a new study?

A group of researchers theorized that mindfulness training might influence aggression. To test this theory, they brought some volunteers into the lab and put them through a mindfulness training program.

The experiment: Once the study participants had completed the training and were feeling ~centered~, they played a competitive game against an opponent. If they lost a round in the game, their opponent would blast them with a loud noise (ouch). But if they won, they were given the option of retaliating against their competitors by blasting them instead. Basically rock-paper-scissors, but with an airhorn. As participants played this game, the researchers recorded activity from their brains using an MRI scanner.

So did mindfulness training make a difference?

While mindfulness training did not influence participants’ behavior on the game, their neural activity did appear to be altered in a variety of brain areas. This neural effect was especially noticeable when compared against individuals who underwent a different, unrelated aggression reduction therapy (more on that here). It’s worth pointing out that this study did have a weakness - it lacked a clear control group. But we understand that science can be messy and so we’ll let it slide (just this once).

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The Leak: Meditation seems to be all the rage, and researchers are starting to see how mindfulness can alter your brain. There are tons of meditation tools out there, but for anyone interested in trying a science-backed meditation app, we recommend Headspace (check out a free trial here).


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How does an embryo get its food?

It orders womb service. Okay jokes aside, the womb actually isn’t the only place where you can find human embryos — it’s possible to grow them in a lab too. But there’s a catch. Up until recently, experiments with developing human embryos were banned beyond 14 days. For the first time in history, that’s about to change.

Back up. Why the 14-day limit?

That’s around the time the “primitive streak” starts to appear in lab-grown human embryo. This marks when the embryo forms a head and tail end, resembling an actual organism (although we wouldn't call it human-like quite yet). The 14-day rule was first proposed in 1979 by International Society for Stem Cell Research to avoid crossing any ethical lines. The idea was to ensure that all experiments were ended before the embryo matured too much.

So why change it?

We know that between days 14 and 21, the embryo lays out a map for crucial organs like the spinal cord, heart and brain. But we have almost no idea how this miraculous process takes place. If scientists could extend the window for experiments, they could learn how to prevent congenital birth defects or even miscarriages.

How do people feel about it?

Some scientists are hyped up, believing that research past the 14-day limit may “literally save lives in the next generation”. Others are worried that dropping the rule “has the potential to really shake public trust”. For what it’s worth, the new guidelines require a ton of oversight before anyone can actually grow embryos past 14 days. But there are still lingering questions about where the ethical boundaries lie.

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The Leak: Human embryo research is a contentious topic, and scientists are keen to push the envelope. While lifting the 14-day rule could prove to be revolutionary, it’s important that we remain careful so that the benefits of scientific discovery are never outweighed by the costs.


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Ready to learn about Cer1 retrotransposon-encoded VLPs for P11 mediated Pseudomonas aeruginosa avoidance?

SIKE! I mean, this story is about that, but we read the paper (free pre-print here) so you don’t have to figure out what all of that means.

Phew. Give me the easy version.

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could transfer your memories to someone else and help them avoid mistakes you made? Neuroscientists have proposed that some kinds of genetic memory transfer might help organisms adjust to stressful environments, but how this happens is not entirely clear. In this study, a group of scientists tried to test for memory transfer between individuals of a tiny worm species known as C. elegans (contrary to their name, they’re not actually that elegant).

The experiment: One group of worms was exposed to harmful bacteria in a petri dish. These worms quickly learned to avoid the bacteria. The scientists harvested the internal tissue from these worms and dissolved it in a solution. A second, fresh group of worms was then immersed in that solution. The researchers wanted to see whether this immersion would transmit the memory of avoiding the bacteria to the new group of worms.

What did they find?

When tested, the worms immersed in the solution immediately avoided the bacteria. That's pretty cool, since these worms had never been exposed to the bacteria before. But that’s not all. The researchers also found that the offspring of these worms inherited the avoidance memories for up to four generations. Basically, the wormy great-grand children also knew to avoid the bacteria, without any training whatsoever.

So how exactly do these memories get transferred?

The researchers dug deep and uncovered genetic mechanism for the memory transfer. If you’re curious about the nitty-gritty details, we highly recommend reading the entire paper (free).

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The Leak: We’re still pretty far from understanding memory transfer in humans, but it looks like some memories might be transferrable amongst worms. This memory transfer can occur between two unrelated worms, or between parent worms and their offspring. As the genetic basis of the memory transfer slowly becomes clear, we might one day fully unlock the mysteries of how memories are formed in our very complicated brains.


In case you missed it:


  • Look out for our next issue coming late September 2021! 🙌



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