Friday, 2 April 2010

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Johnald's Fantastical Daily Link Splurge

Video: Tortoises Learn From Each Other

Posted: 01 Apr 2010 01:45 PM PDT

Animal hermits can learn from their peers, researchers say, even though they rarely encounter one another in the wild.

sciencenewsRed-footed tortoises in the wild live a typically lonely tortoise life, without even being cared for by their parents. But in the lab, they can pick up hints to solving a problem by watching a more accomplished tortoise, says cognitive biologist Anna Wilkinson of the University of Vienna. "It's the first demonstration of social learning in reptiles," she says.

It's also the first demonstration that nonsocial animals can watch a neighbor and then complete a task that they couldn't figure out readily on their own, she says. The tortoises' feats are "challenging the idea that social learning is an adaptation for social living," Wilkinson and her colleagues say in a paper going online the week of March 30 in Biology Letters.

In mammals, birds and insects, the power to learn from watching a neighbor has shown up in animals that live in groups, like chimps and honeybees. So scientists routinely link social learning to social living, Wilkinson says. However, she proposes that watching a neighbor may be just another way that any good learner, social or not, picks up on clues for success.

"It might be the case that social learning in social and non-social species is different in interesting ways, and that would be great to know," says animal behaviorist Bennett G. Galef of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, who was not involved in the study.

Video: Anna Wilkinson

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Think You’re Good at Driving While on Your Cellphone? You May Be Right

Posted: 01 Apr 2010 10:31 AM PDT


Cellphone users frequently drive themselves to distraction while operating cars, and all too often end up in traffic accidents. But a select few multitask behind the wheel with extraordinary skill, a new study finds.

sciencenewsAbout one in 40 drivers qualifies as a "supertasker," able to combine driving and cell phone use without impairing performance of either activity, say psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, both of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. These unusual exceptions to the general rule that performance declines when a person does two things at once (SN: 3/13/10, p. 16) may offer insights into the workings of attention and mental control, Watson and Strayer propose in an upcoming Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Laboratory tests of 200 volunteers operating a driving simulator identified five extraordinary individuals. These people were good drivers: They hit the brakes quickly in response to cars that slowed in front of them and maintained a safe distance from other cars. They also excelled at solving simple math problems and remembering words heard over a hands-free cellphone when not driving. Critically, their performance on these tasks stayed just as high while driving and using cellphones at the same time.

"Supertaskers did a phenomenal job of performing several different tasks at once," Watson says. "We'd all like to think we could do the same, but the odds are overwhelmingly against it."

Watson and Strayer studied college students, ages 18 to 43. After learning to operate a driving simulator on a virtual highway, participants followed an intermittently braking pace car driving in the right-hand lane. For each volunteer, the researchers measured time needed to depress the brakes when the pace car slowed and distance from the pace car throughout the trip.

In a separate trial, participants listened through hands-free cellphones as an experimenter read two to five words interspersed with simple math problems that had to be immediately labeled as true or false. Volunteers then tried to recall words in the order that they were presented.

As expected, overall group performance declined markedly when driving and the cellphone task were performed at the same time. Volunteers took an average of 20 percent longer to hit the brakes when needed, and increasingly fell behind the pace car. Word recall fell by 11 percent and math accuracy declined 3 percent.

But the handful of supertaskers maintained their braking times, following distances and math accuracy while multitasking. Their word recall rose 3 percent.

Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass wonders whether supertaskers in the new study prefer doing many things at once in their daily lives. He and his colleagues have found that young adults who often multitask — say by regularly sending text messages while navigating websites and watching television — perform worse when switching back and forth between two mental tasks than peers who rarely multitask. Frequent multitaskers have difficulty ignoring information irrelevant to a task at hand, Nass argues.

That leads Nass to the somewhat surprising conclusion that supertaskers tend not to juggle multiple duties and don't need to practice multitasking to be good at it.

Researchers need to explore whether supertaskers jointly simply perform well-learned abilities the same way everyone else does but with far more efficiency, or instead deploy mental resources in distinctive ways, says psychologist Randall Engle of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Watson and Strayer plan to do that by comparing various measures of brain activity for people who do and don't rank as supertaskers.

Image: CraigOppy/flickr

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End of Gene Patents Will Help Patients, Force Companies to Change

Posted: 01 Apr 2010 09:55 AM PDT


When you went to sleep last Sunday night, 20 percent of your genome belonged to a researcher or company. One day later, following federal district court judge Robert Sweet's ruling, it belonged to you.

Some activists cheered the landmark decision on general principle, but for others, it was a business and medical matter. They say the end of gene patents could be a boon for patients, who will benefit from gene-testing companies competing for their business.

"They'll have to deliver products to the marketplace faster, better and cheaper. There's all sorts of ways to make money," said Dan Ravicher, executive director of the Public Patent Foundation and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which pitted civil rights activists and patient groups against Myriad Genetics, a Utah provider of tests on its patented breast-cancer-risk genes. "I'm a strong conservative. I believe companies are good and competitionis good."

Myriad and its supporters, including the Biotechnology Industry Organization, had argued that gene patents were necessary. They made commercial profits possible, and potential financial rewards drove research.

Ravicher's foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and their supporters —including the American Medical Association, American Society of Human Genetics and March of Dimes — said this simply wasn't true.

Beyond the absurdity of gene patents —imagine patenting gold, the human arm, or gravity — they said that patents had hurt patients, stifled business and stunted research. Myriad's monopoly prevented women from getting second opinions on their breast-cancer gene tests. More broadly, existing gene patents dissuaded researchers from studying sections of the genome that were already claimed, and high licensing fees discouraged would-be entrepreneurs.

In a public statement, Myriad Genetics said it would appeal the decision.

"My hope is that this ruling stands and companies will need to actually innovate and create new advances based on genetic findings, not dependent on sole access to them," wrote Linda Avey, CEO of personalized genomics company 23andMe, in a comment on the Genetic Future blog. "Rather than relying on obscure patent language and legal strategies, companies will need to develop products that are competitively positioned."

One area of competition will be in the interpretation of gene mutations. Gene testers don't just plug a DNA sequence into a computer and wait for the result. They use an arsenal of interpretive techniques, and must update their approaches with new research.

"There are a lot of algorithms that each of us uses. Some are more right than others. There are differences in how you study mutations, weight them, and interpret the data," said Wendy Chung, a Columbia University breast cancer researcher and plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Chung said that Myriad's tests are well-regarded, but they've lagged in interpreting rare gene variants that each person has, but because they're so unique, have not been ascribed a clinical significance.

"On the academic side, there are a lot of people trying to computationally guess what the functions of these variants will be. Myriad has been conservative in saying, if we don't know what it is, then we won't make guesses," said Chung.

Gene-testing companies will also compete to do the best job explaining often-ambiguous genetic results to their customers. Business relationships with insurance companies and health care providers will become even more important. And companies will still be able to patent tools used to interpret genes.

"Companies can compete on quality, speed and taking the burden off hospitals," said Robert Cook-Deegan, a Duke University gene policy expert. The decision "does threaten some business models but it opens the gate for others."

Image: Dave Fayram/Flickr

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Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.