Category Archives: University of California, Berkeley

This molecule may stop glaucoma’s progress

Naturally occurring molecules known as lipid mediators could potentially halt the progress of glaucoma, new research suggests.

“We know of no drug that can do this.”

The world’s second-leading cause of blindness, glaucoma is a neurodegenerative disease in which fluid buildup in the frontal eye causes irreversible damage to the optic nerve and vision loss. At present, there is no cure for glaucoma, which is estimated to affect 80 million people worldwide.

“Not only could this discovery lead to drugs to treat glaucoma, but the same mechanism, and options for prevention, may be applicable to other neurodegenerative diseases,” says study senior author Karsten Gronert, professor of optometry and chair of vision science at University of California, Berkeley.

Preventing damage

Using rodent models, Gronert and fellow researchers found that inflammation-regulating lipid mediators known as lipoxins, secreted from star-shaped cells known as astrocytes, stopped the degeneration of retinal ganglion cells in rats and mice with glaucoma. Ganglion cells are the neurons of the retina and optic nerve that receive information from photoreceptors.

“We’ve taken something everyone assumed was anti-inflammatory, and found that these same small molecules play a key role in neuroprotection, which is really exciting,” says study co-senior author John Flanagan, dean and professor of optometry.

“This little-known lipid mediator has shown the potential to reverse cell death…”

Specifically, researchers found that astrocytes, which help maintain brain function and form the nerve fiber layer of the retina and optic nerve, release therapeutic biological agents known as lipoxins A4 and B4, but only when the astrocytes are at rest and maintaining nerve function.

“It is commonly assumed that astrocytes activated by injuries release stress signals that kill off ganglion cells in the retina, causing optic nerve damage,” says Flanagan. “However, our research discovered that astrocytes that are triggered by injury actually turn off novel neuroprotective signals that prevent optic nerve damage.”

Researchers discovered secretions of lipoxins A4 and B4 in resting astrocytes in culture in the retina and optic nerve head. To test their potential as a treatment, they administered the lipoxins to rodents eight weeks after the onset of glaucoma-like damage and neurodegeneration.

At 16 weeks, they gauged electrical activity in the rodents’ ganglion cells, among other measures, and found that lipoxin B4 in particular stopped the cells’ degeneration.

“This little-known lipid mediator has shown the potential to reverse cell death,” Gronert says. “We know of no drug that can do this.”

‘Great potential’

For decades, pharmaceutical companies have searched for neuroprotective drugs to treat glaucoma and other disorders marked by the death of nerve cells such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS. Glaucoma is by far the most prevalent of these neurodegenerative diseases.

Glaucoma biomarker may predict speed of vision loss

“At the same time, lipoxins have been explored as promising drug targets for treating inflammatory diseases, but nobody has been looking at them as being neuroprotective,” Gronert says.

At present, the treatment option for glaucoma is to lower ocular pressure, but there are no effective treatments for preventing or stopping the neurodegeneration of glaucoma, which is irreversible and eventually leads to blindness, Flanagan says

The study authors are excited at the prospect of further investigations into the therapeutic benefits and mechanisms of lipoxins A4 and B4 and their potential to stop or reverse neural damage. They have jointly filed a patent application for use of lipoxins A4 and B4 to treat glaucoma and neurodegenerative diseases. Their eventual goal is to test the lipoxins as drugs in humans.

“These naturally occurring small lipids have great potential as therapies because they may play a fundamental role in preventing other neurodegenerative diseases. And that’s hugely significant, ” Flanagan says.

New way of imaging eyes could spot glaucoma sooner

Additional researchers contributing to the study are from UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto.

The researchers detail their findings in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Source: Purdue University

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Watch: How museum moths end up on pins

Natural history museums are full of specimens, including mounted examples of butterflies, moths, beetles, and other insects.

In the video above, Peter Oboyski, collections manager at the UC Berkeley Museum of Entomology, shows how the process works.

In addition, here’s a look behind the scenes at the “museum of bugs” and into their “oh my” collection:

Source: Marica Petry for UC Berkeley

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Cactus genomes reveal complex family tree

When scientists sequenced the complete genomes of four columnar cacti, they were surprised to find that their family relationships are not as straightforward as their shapes suggest.

The cactus family tree and the giant cacti in particular—the giant saguaro, organ pipe, senita, and cardón, also called the Mexican giant cactus—have been very difficult to trace.

Found only in the Americas, cacti have adapted to a broad range of environments. The current count is 1,438 species, but scientists disagree by a factor of 10 about how many genera of cacti the species represent.

That’s in part because the same traits—succulence and a columnar form, for example—seem to have evolved separately in different lineages: what’s known as parallel evolution.

Ancient genes

For a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers created individual family trees of each gene shared across all species.

The findings show that their histories were scrambled as a result of long generation times—saguaro cacti can live 150 years or more—making the relationships among the species even with complete genomic information difficult to understand.

They did determine, however, that some similarities, like the succulent flesh that makes some cacti a good emergency source of water, resulted from ancient genes that were retained by some cacti but lost by others.

What looked like parallel evolution, with some species gaining new genes and new functions, was actually just the random loss of genes in all the other species.

Losing ground

The findings could have implications for the fate of these cacti, which are losing habitat because of human development in arid areas of the Americas.

“Many species are endangered, and the fact that we don’t understand their relationships makes this fraught,” says Noah Whiteman, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty member with the Center for Computational Biology and an affiliate of the University and Jepson Herbaria and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

The work also addresses a recently recognized complication in interpreting the evolution of all plants and animals.

Without much rain, roots dive deep to find water

“Only with whole-genome sequencing were we able to see this pattern of incomplete lineage sorting, called hemiplasy, which looks superficially like convergent or parallel evolution, or homoplasy,” he says.

“It’s an important advance because one could mistake such patterns as evidence for parallel evolution at the molecular level, which is a hot topic in evolutionary biology right now.”

Other coauthors are from the University of Arizona and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Source: UC Berkeley

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How mosquitoes get away before you can slap them

Strong, rapid wing beats with hardly any push off let mosquitoes make a fast getaway.

The technique is in stark contrast to other insects, like flies, that push off first and then start beating their wings frantically, often tumbling uncontrollably in the process. That strong push off also lets us know they’re there before they have a chance to escape.

“Mosquitoes take off mostly with their wings and push off with their legs very, very lightly, or maybe not at all,” says Sofia Chang, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley who wrangled and fed malarial mosquitoes in order to study their takeoffs.

Mosquitoes are able to make these stealthy takeoffs with an empty belly or one filled with a blood meal, which nearly doubles their weight.

“If they were to push off a lot more with their legs, they wouldn’t have to produce as much lift with their wings. But if they lift just with their wings, you won’t feel them coming off your skin.”

Mosquitoes are able to make these stealthy takeoffs both with an empty belly and one filled with a blood meal, which nearly doubles their weight.

Working in the laboratory of Florian Muijres at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Chang cycled through 600 mosquitoes as the team perfected its setup to film mosquito takeoffs with three high-speed cameras shooting at 125,000 frames per second.

mosquito montage image
Photomontage of a blood-fed mosquito taking off. (Credit: Florian Muijres)

Chang initially fed them blood from her own arm before Wageningen University entomologist Jeoren Spitzen contributed the expertise and equipment to feed them artificially.

The team used the mosquito species Anopheles coluzzii—which can carry malaria but was kept sterile during the experiment—in hopes of finding clues to flight maneuvers that could be used against them.

“These studies may also give tips about how to build very, very small robots. That is a field where miniaturization is a Holy Grail,” Chang says.

600 beats per second

Chang and colleagues, including UC Berkeley integrative biology professors Robert Dudley and Mimi Koehl, were primarily interested in how insects alter their takeoffs when carrying extra weight, like a blood meal.

The high-speed cameras captured stark silhouettes of the mosquitoes and their beating wings, which Muijres was able to turn into three-dimensional renderings of the wingbeats to help calculate lift and other aerodynamic forces. Of the many mosquitoes filmed, 63 videos were analyzed in the study: 32 of blood-laden mosquitoes, 31 unfed.

The researchers were surprised to find that the mosquitoes began beating their wings about 30 milliseconds before liftoff using an extraordinarily high—and annoyingly whining—wing-beat frequency of about 600 beats per second. Other similarly sized insects beat their wings about 200 times per second.

The insects took advantage of their exceptionally long legs to extend them gently and push down slowly over the 30 milliseconds before takeoff, lifting free with barely a rebound. The wings’ contribution to the takeoff was at least 60 percent of the force—and possibly all of what is needed to lift a well-fed mosquito off the skin.

“Instead of going fast, they take their time, but they accelerate the entire time so that they reach a final velocity pretty much the same as fruit flies,” Chang says. “That is something that might be unique to mosquitoes, and maybe even unique to blood feeders.”

Mosquitoes vs. fruit flies

Fruit flies exerted almost four times the force exerted by mosquitoes during takeoff. Coauthor Bart Biemans compared the anatomy of the mosquitoes’ and fruit flies’ leg muscles and found that mosquitoes are missing the quick-kick muscles that fruit flies have, presumably “because [mosquitoes] need to produce a lower force at pushoff,” Muijres says.

The videos show that female mosquitoes carrying blood meals generate the extra lift they need to take off with such heavy loads by sweeping their wings across a greater distance during each wingbeat than do mosquitoes that are not carrying loads,” Koehl says.

The team next plans to look at mosquito landings, which are equally stealthy, and compare them to takeoffs and landings of other blood-sucking insects and non-blood-sucking mosquitoes, to determine if they exert a similarly light touch.

Mosquitoes only mate once and 4 other facts

The National Science Foundation and the Wageningen Institute of Animal Sciences funded the work that appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

Source: UC Berkeley

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First trimester fevers may cause birth defects

Fever during the first trimester of pregnancy may boost the risk of heart defects and facial deformities such as cleft lip or palate.

Researchers have known about the risks for decades, but how it happens has been unclear. Is a virus or other infection source—or fever alone—the underlying problem?

Now, a new study in Science Signaling points to the fever itself, not its root source, that can interfere with the development of the heart and jaw during the first three to eight weeks of pregnancy.

“Our study identified a specific molecular pathway that links maternal fever directly to some of those defects.”

The findings, demonstrated in animal embryos, provide new leads as scientists continue investigating heart defects, which affect 1 percent of live births in the US, and cleft lip or palate, affecting about 4,000 infants per year.

“Congenital heart and cranial facial defects are very common in live births, but most of the time they have unknown causes,” says co-senior author Chunlei Liu, an associate professor of neuroscience and electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. “Our study identified a specific molecular pathway that links maternal fever directly to some of those defects.”

The animal models suggest a portion of congenital birth defects in humans might be prevented if fevers are treated through means including the judicious use of acetaminophen during the first trimester, says co-senior author Eric Benner, a neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University.

Take some Tylenol?

“My hope is that right now, as women are planning to become pregnant and their doctors advise them to start taking prenatal vitamins and folic acid, their doctor also informs them if they get a fever, they should not hesitate to call and consider taking a fever reducer, specifically acetaminophen (Tylenol), which has been studied extensively and determined to be safe during the first trimester.

“While doctors advise most women to avoid any drug during pregnancy, there may be benefits to taking acetaminophen to reduce fever. Women should discuss all risks and benefits with their doctors.”

Benner cautions that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin also reduce fevers, but women shouldn’t use aspirin, naproxen, or ibuprofen during pregnancy. There is also ongoing debate over whether sustained use of acetaminophen is safe during pregnancy to manage ongoing conditions such as arthritis, he says.

“However, its judicious use for an acute problem such as fever is considered safe. These findings suggest we can reduce the risk of birth defects that otherwise could lead to serious health complications requiring surgery.”

Neural crest cells

To observe how fever impacts a developing fetus, researchers studied zebrafish and chicken embryos and found that neural crest cells—cells that are critical building blocks for the heart, face, and jaw—contain temperature-sensitive properties.

“We found that these neural crest cells contain temperature-sensitive ion channels that typically are found in your sensory neurons,” Benner says. “They’re the channels that, when you stick your hand in a hot cup of water, tell your body the temperature has changed.”

Researchers engineered a noninvasive magnet-based technology to create fever-like conditions in two specific temperature-sensitive ion channels called TRPV1 and TRPV4 in the neural crest cells involved in developing the heart and face.

When those neural crest cells were subjected to conditions mimicking a transient fever, the embryos developed craniofacial irregularities and heart defects, including double outlet right ventricle, Tetralogy of Fallot, and other outflow obstructions.

Women “shouldn’t just tough it out if they develop a fever.”

“With electrical magnetic waves coupled with engineered ion channel proteins, we are able to impact specific biological cells remotely without affecting other biochemical environments,” Liu says. “The technique can be applied to study many different cell types and their roles at various developmental stages.”

The type of defect depends on whether the fever occurs during heart development or head and face development in the embryo. What researchers still don’t know is whether or how the severity or duration of a fever impacts development.

“We have known since the early 1980s that fevers are associated with birth defects, but how that was happening has been a complete mystery,” Benner says. It is challenging to gather data from mothers on the circumstances, severity, or duration of a fever from many months before.

“I hope moving forward, we can educate more women about fever as a risk factor for birth defects and let them know they shouldn’t just tough it out if they develop a fever,” Benner says. “They should ask their doctor before getting pregnant whether they may benefit from taking a fever-reducer such as acetaminophen in the event they develop a fever.”

The Jean and George Brumley Jr. Neonatal Perinatal Research Institute, the Zeist Foundation, the Hartwell Foundation, the Mandel Foundation, the Duke Health Scholars Award, the American Heart Association, and the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Benner and Liu have filed a patent application relating to the use of FeRIC technology for cell modulation and treatments.

Source: Duke University, UC Berkeley

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Parole violations send felons through prison’s ‘revolving door’

New research on the US prison system suggests parole violations—such as failing a drug test or associating with felons—play a central role in people returning to prison and the high prison population in the United States.

“One implication is that mass imprisonment is giving us less crime prevention than we might have assumed…”

The study finds that felons who served time behind bars were more likely to return to prison within five years of their release, compared to equivalent offenders who were sentenced to probation.

Moreover, it found that most of their later returns to prison were due to parole violations rather than new crimes.

“This study shows that the revolving door is primarily a product of post-prison community supervision rather than the commission of new felony crimes, as so many people become trapped in the criminal justice system’s accelerating cycle of surveillance and punishment,” says study lead author David Harding, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The results suggest that alternatives to imprisonment for parole violators, such as treatment programs or community service, might slow down prison’s revolving door, he says.

The findings shed new light on contributors to the soaring US prison population which, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, saw a 700-percent increase between 1970 and 2005.

The full cost of incarceration in the United States has been estimated at over $1 trillion when factoring in prisoners’ diminished wages and job prospects, the socio-economic burden to families and communities, as well as government operational costs, according to a study from Washington University in St. Louis.

For this new study, researchers analyzed the criminal records of more than 100,000 people sentenced for violent and nonviolent felonies in Michigan between 2003 and 2006, tracking them through September 2013.

How to keep people with mental illness out of prison

The researchers’ statistical methods enabled them to determine the extent to which being sentenced to prison rather than probation increased the chances of a future felony conviction or prison term.

The results also showed a small decrease in crime during the time that the offenders were behind bars, and that after their release, they committed slightly fewer crimes than felons who had been sentenced to probation.

“One implication is that mass imprisonment is giving us less crime prevention than we might have assumed,” Harding says.

Parole violations include failing to complete certain programs, breaking curfew, failing a drug or alcohol test, associating with other felons, moving home, or leaving the state without permission.

While not felony crimes per se, these breaches are subject to prison terms and, as this latest study shows, may play an integral role in the growth of prison populations, researchers says.

Additional coauthors of the study are from the University of Michigan and the State University of New York at Albany.

3 reasons returning U.S. veterans end up in prison

The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Bacterial ‘aphrodisiac’ can trigger protist sex swarms

To the surprise of scientists, bacteria can act as an aphrodisiac for the one-celled marine organisms that are the closest living relatives of all animals.

This is the first known example of bacteria triggering mating in a eukaryote, a group that includes all plants and animals.

The organisms, protists called choanoflagellates, eat bacteria and serve as a source of food for small ocean animals like krill.

Several years ago, the lab Nicole King, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, discovered that certain bacteria make these one-celled choanoflagellates (a.k.a. choanos) develop into multicellular colonies.

The new discovery suggests that choanos “eavesdrop” on bacteria to make sense of their environment and regulate their life history.

The discovery may help reveal how humans and other animals evolved from single-celled organisms over the last 600 million years.

multicellular rosettes
A different bacterium induces the development of multicellular rosettes, which arise through multiple divisions of a single founding cell. (Credit: Arielle Woznica/UC Berkeley)

In this case, the bioluminescent marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri triggers the choanoflagellate Salpingoeca rosetta to swarm and mate. Mating is sometimes a response to a changing environment.

“A lot of evolutionary theory favors the idea that mating happens when conditions are stressful, because you need to reshuffle the deck. With sexual reproduction, you will hopefully get a new combination of gene alleles that is more fit for whatever is coming down the pike,” King says.

“Bacteria are very good at integrating a lot of information about the environment, as different species of bacteria have different nutrient requirements. Choanos may be using bacteria as a proxy for environmental conditions, or live indicators for when its time to get ready for good or bad times,” she says.

Mating among choanoflagellates has been a mystery—even whether choanos engaged in sexual reproduction—until her team discovered in 2013 that starvation could trigger mating, although only a small percentage of cells would mate. The new study shows that Vibrio bacteria elicit a much more rapid response, with large percentages of cells mating within hours.

“Choanoflagellates have a lot of flexibility in their life history. They can go on and on being asexual, but now we’ve found that they can also be sexual, and that the switch to sexuality is induced by a bacterial cue within an hour after exposure,” says King.

Asexual gene is ‘contagious’ among water fleas

The new discovery suggests that other creatures, including some that have been difficult to study in the lab because they fail to mate, may need a little bacterial aphrodisiac to get it on.

“One possibility is that these animals need particular cues from environmental bacteria that are not being provided in the lab,” she says.

After UC Berkeley graduate student Arielle Woznica discovered that these bacteria initiated swarming, they collaborated with Jon Clardy’s lab at Harvard Medical School to track down the trigger: a protein the bacteria secrete constantly, which they dubbed EroS.

They showed that EroS is a chondroitinase, an enzyme that degrades a specific type of sulfated molecule found in the extracellular matrix of S. rosetta that was previously thought to be exclusive to animals. They also found that if this enzymatic function was inhibited, swarming did not occur, and that chondroitinases from other aquatic bacteria reproduced the aphrodisiacal effects. As the teams investigate how EroS works, they’re continuing to explore the interactions between bacteria and choanoflagellates.

Here’s more proof that having sex has its perks

As for implications for animals like humans and their bacterial partners, the so-called microbiome, King says that “we hope that by studying choanos, which are really simple, that we can identify key molecules and then go into the more complex environment of the gut microbiome, for instance, and see whether some of these molecules matter in that context as well.”

“I think by demonstrating a new type of bacteria-induced behavior, we may inspire others to look in the systems they study and see if they might have missed that bacteria play a role there as well,” says co-first author Joseph Gerdt, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School.

The National Institutes of Health funded the work, which appears in the journal Cell.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Squirrels use ‘chunking’ to organize their nuts

Fox squirrels are a lot more organized than we thought—storing their stashes of nuts by variety, quality, and possibly even by preference.

A new study is the first to show evidence that squirrels arrange their bounty—at least 3,000 to 10,000 nuts a year—using “chunking,” a cognitive strategy in which people and other animals organize spatial, linguistic, numeric, or other information into smaller more manageable collections, such as subfolders on a computer.

“This is the first demonstration of chunking in a scatter-hoarding animal, and also suggests that squirrels use flexible strategies to store food depending on how they acquire food,” says Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study in Royal Society Open Science.

Presumably, sophisticated caching techniques maximize the squirrels’ ability to remember where they’ve stored their most prized treats while at the same time hiding them from potential pilferers.

“Squirrels may use chunking the same way you put away your groceries,” says senior author Lucia Jacobs, a professor of psychology.

“You might put fruit on one shelf and vegetables on another. Then, when you’re looking for an onion, you only have to look in one place, not every shelf in the kitchen.”

Over a two-year period, the research team tracked the caching patterns of 45 male and female fox squirrels as the reddish gray, bushy-tailed rodents buried almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, and walnuts in various wooded locations.

The study used combinations of locations and nut sequences on various groups of fox squirrels.

In one experiment, for example, each of the squirrels were fed 16 nuts, one after another, under two separate conditions: Some were fed at the locale where they had cached the previous nut fed to them while others were fed at one central location, to which they would need to return if they wanted another nut.

Gnawing squirrels are culprits at many crime scenes

Some squirrels were given 16 nuts in rows of four, say, almonds followed by pecans, followed by hazelnuts, and then walnuts, while others received 16 nuts in random order.

Researchers used hand-held GPS navigators to track the squirrels from their starting location to their caching location, then mapped the distribution of nut types and caching locations to detect patterns.

Squirrels who foraged at a single location frequently organized their caches by nut species, returning to, say, the almond area, if that was the type of nut they were gathering, and keeping each category of nut that they buried separate. Meanwhile, the squirrels foraging in multiple locations deliberately avoided caching in areas where they had already buried nuts, rather than organizing nuts by type.

“These observations suggest that when lacking the cognitive anchor of a central food source, fox squirrels utilize a different and perhaps simpler heuristic (problem-solving approach) to simply avoid the areas where they had previously cached,” the authors write.

Source: UC Berkeley

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We have 27 kinds of emotion, not just 6

A new study has pinpointed 27 separate categories of human emotions, challenging an old assumption in psychology that most emotions can be categorized as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, or disgust.

Using novel statistical models to analyze the responses of more than 800 men and women to over 2,000 emotionally evocative video clips, researchers identified the 27 distinct categories of emotion and created a multidimensional, interactive map to show how they’re connected.

“Emotional experiences are so much richer and more nuanced than previously thought.”

“We found that 27 distinct dimensions, not six, were necessary to account for the way hundreds of people reliably reported feeling in response to each video,” says study senior author Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Moreover, in contrast to the notion that each emotional state is an island, the study found that “there are smooth gradients of emotion between, say, awe and peacefulness, horror and sadness, and amusement and adoration,” Keltner says.

“We don’t get finite clusters of emotions in the map because everything is interconnected,” says study lead author Alan Cowen, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the university. “Emotional experiences are so much richer and more nuanced than previously thought.”

“Our hope is that our findings will help other scientists and engineers more precisely capture the emotional states that underlie moods, brain activity, and expressive signals, leading to improved psychiatric treatments, an understanding of the brain basis of emotion and technology responsive to our emotional needs,” he adds.

Check out the interactive emotion map. (Warning: Some of the map’s video clips may be inappropriate or upsetting)

For the study, a demographically diverse group of 853 men and women went online to view a random sampling of silent 5- to-10-second videos intended to evoke a broad range of emotions.

Themes from the 2,185 video clips—collected from various online sources for the study—included births and babies, weddings and proposals, death and suffering, spiders and snakes, physical pratfalls and risky stunts, sexual acts, natural disasters, wondrous nature, and awkward handshakes.

Three separate groups of study participants watched sequences of videos, and, after viewing each clip, completed a reporting task. The first group freely reported their emotional responses to each of 30 video clips.

“Their responses reflected a rich and nuanced array of emotional states, ranging from nostalgia to feeling ‘grossed out,’” Cowen says.

Should kids learn emotions alongside ABC?

The second group ranked each video according to how strongly it made them feel admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, contempt, craving, disappointment, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, envy, excitement, fear, guilt, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, pride, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise, sympathy, and triumph.

“We sought to shed light on the full palette of emotions that color our inner world.”

Here, the experimenters found that participants converged on similar responses, with more than half of the viewers reporting the same category of emotion for each video.

The final cohort rated their emotional responses on a scale of 1 to 9 to each of a dozen videos based on such dichotomies as positive versus negative, excitement versus calmness, and dominance versus submissiveness. Researchers were able to predict how participants would score the videos based on how previous participants had assessed the emotions the videos elicited.

Overall, the results showed that study participants generally shared the same or similar emotional responses to each of the videos, providing a wealth of data that allowed researchers to identify 27 distinct categories of emotion.

Through statistical modeling and visualization techniques, the researchers organized the emotional responses to each video into a semantic atlas of human emotions. On the map, each of the 27 distinct categories of emotion corresponds to a particular color.

Fighting negative emotions can make you feel worse

“We sought to shed light on the full palette of emotions that color our inner world,” Cowen says.

Their findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: UC Berkeley

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Cognition tends to peak later if you have more degrees

A new study suggests that higher levels of education are tied to later ages of peak cognitive functioning.

The study, which appears in the journal PLOS ONE, examined relationships between educational attainment, cognitive performance, and learning in order to quantify the cumulative effect of attending school.

age of peak cognitive performance chart
This chart shows the age at which cognitive performance peaks align with the average age of completion of educational degrees by participants in a study of education and cognition. Colored points show the median age of maximum performance while gray, dotted lines represent the age range of peak performance, and colored squares show the median age of typical graduation for each education level. (Credit: PLOS ONE via UC Berkeley)

Its findings suggest that higher levels of education may help stave off age-related cognitive decline. In addition, the team found that education didn’t have a large impact on novel learning, or learning something new at various points in time.

Conventional wisdom has long accepted that higher education is likely to boost incomes and helps prepare individuals for a workplace with often-changing skill sets. Yet fewer than 40 percent of adults in the United States are expected to graduate from college in their lifetimes, and the percentage declines for more advanced degrees.

Until now, research has been inconclusive about the cognitive impacts of higher education and whether the quantity of schooling can influence the acquisition and maintenance of cognitive skills over time.

“…schooling doesn’t merely impart knowledge—it also provides the opportunity to sharpen core cognitive skills…”

Bunge and her team say higher levels of education are strong predictors of better cognitive performance across the 15- to 60-year-old age range of their study participants, and appear to boost performance more in areas such as reasoning than in terms of processing speed.

The study’s findings are consistent with prior evidence that the brain adapts in response to challenges, a phenomenon called “experience-dependent brain plasticity.” Based on the principles of plasticity, the authors predicted improvements in cognitive skills that are repeatedly taxed in demanding, cognitively engaging coursework.

Differences in performance were small for test subjects with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a high school diploma, and moderate for those with doctorates compared to those with only some high school education.

Why some people don’t take out loans for college

The researchers note that people from lower educational backgrounds learned novel tasks nearly as well as those from higher ones.

“The fact that the cognitive tests were not similar to what is learned in school is a strength of the study: It speaks to the idea that schooling doesn’t merely impart knowledge—it also provides the opportunity to sharpen core cognitive skills,” says Bunge.

The researchers analyzed anonymized data collected from around 196,000 Lumosity subscribers in the United States, Canada, and Australia who came from a range of educational attainment and diverse backgrounds. Participants complete eight behavioral assessments of executive functioning and reasoning that are unrelated to educational curricula as part of their subscription.

The research team also looked closely at a subset of nearly 70,000 subscribers who finished Lumosity’s behavioral assessments a second time after about 100 days of additional cognitive training. Testing before and after the assessments measured cognitive performance in areas such as working memory, thinking quickly, responding flexibly to task goals, and both verbal and non-verbal reasoning.

“Given the size and wide age range of our sample, it was possible to test whether these age effects are influenced by education—and, importantly, to determine how the cognitive effects of educational attainment differ across the lifespan, as one’s experience with formal education recedes into the past and is supplanted by other life experiences,” the team writes.

Bunge says that collaborating with Lumosity was an opportunity to analyze data from a large number of participants—an anonymized dataset that would have taken a lifetime to collect in a laboratory.

In America, less education often means more chronic pain

Additional researchers contributing to the paper are from the University of California, Berkeley and Lumos Lab.

Source: UC Berkeley

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