Friday, 25 June 2010

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Sense of Touch Shapes Snap Judgments

Posted: 25 Jun 2010 03:00 AM PDT

Sitting in a hard chair can literally turn someone into a hardass. Holding a heavy clipboard leads to weighty decisions. Rubbing rough surfaces makes us prickly. So found researchers studying the interaction between physical touch and social cognition.

The experiments included would-be car buyers who, when seated in a cushy chair, were less likely to drive a stiff bargain. The findings don't just suggest tricks for salesman, but may illuminate how our brains develop.

"The way people understand the world is through physical experiences. The first sense they develop is touch," said study co-author Josh Ackerman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist. As they grow up, those physical experiences shape how people conceptualize abstract, social experience, he said. "Later on, you can do what we did — trigger different physical experiences, and produce changes in people's thoughts."

Published June 24 in Science, the study is the latest addition to a booming field of embodied cognition, which over the last decade has scientifically eroded the notion that mind and body are distinctly separate.

Other studies have shown that kids are better at math when using their hands while thinking. Actors recall lines more easily while moving. People tend towards generosity after holding a warm cup of coffee, and are more callous after holding a cold drink.

The drink temperature study was co-authored by Yale University psychologist John Bargh, also a co-author of the latest paper. His group is especially interested in touch, which is one of the first senses to develop.

Other research shows that the brain doesn't always have different structures for different functions, but often uses the same systems in a variety of ways. And given the importance of touch, it's easy for developing brains to use tactile associations — heaviness requires effort, roughness leads to friction, hard objects are inflexible — in understanding social situations.

"Those connections that people have, between physical experience and mental understanding, don't ever disappear," said Ackerman.

To test the connection, the researchers conducted a variety of experiments simulating real-world social interactions. In one, test participants played the part of employers interviewing job applicants. When holding a heavy clipboard, they were more likely to consider candidates to be serious, and thought of their own judgements as especially important.

In another test, passerby asked to complete surveys on government funding of social programs were more likely to support increases while holding heavy clipboards. The problems seemed more significant.

After hearing stories about an ambiguous social interaction, test participants tended to consider it uncoordinated and harsh if they'd just handled a rough-surfaced jigsaw puzzle. After assembling a smooth puzzle, those ambiguous stories didn't seem so awkward.

Test subjects who touched a block of wood subsequently judged job applicants to be more strict in character than when they'd touched a blanked. And in the car negotiations, people sitting in stiff chairs rather than soft held out for an extra $350 price cut.

"The tactile sensation is extremely important early in devleopment. The idea that other associations would be built on that makes intuitive sense," said Franklin & Marshall College psychologist Michael Anderson, who was not involved in the study. "Brain regions that may initially have been dedicated to one particular task, turn out ot contribute to multiple tasks."

It's not only people curious about brain development who will be interested in the findings. Manipulations "used in the studies might have important implications for a host of social situations such as job interviews, buyer/seller interactions, and the collection of signatures for petitions," said Gettysburg University psychologist Brian Meier.

For those fearing exploitation by marketers, Ackerman noted that tactile suggestion's effects diminish when people pay attention. "It's when you're distracted, thinking in a shallow fashion, that you get hit by these cues," he said.

The researchers want to further study how tactile-social interactions form during infancy and adolescence, and whether certain types of people are susceptible than others. They're are curious whether tactility affects hormone balances and, in the short term, personality type.

Ackerman said the connection isn't one-way. "Once you have the connections, the process works both ways," he said. "There is some evidence that you can change people's sensations by changing their thoughts."

Image: Taber Andrew Bain/Flickr.

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Citation: "Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions." By J.M. Ackerman, C.C. Nocera, J.A. Bargh. Science, Volume 328 No. 5987, June 22, 2010.

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

New Form of Gene Regulation Hints at Hidden Dimension of DNA

Posted: 24 Jun 2010 03:00 PM PDT

An entire class of seemingly useless genetic components may actually regulate gene activity, suggests a study that — though preliminary — has potentially transformative implications for biology.

The findings involve apparently redundant copies of genes, called "pseudogenes," and RNA molecules that would normally carry out genetic instructions, but appear to be disabled.

When it comes to altering the activity of PTEN, a cancer tumor-regulating gene, these components are neither redundant nor broken. Instead they help turn PTEN on and off.

The same might happen for thousands of other genes. If so, the findings have revealed an entire new class of operators in the programming language of life.

"This is a completely new way by which genes can be regulated. It's something that up to this point has been undiscovered," said Leonardo Salmena, a Harvard Medical School geneticist and co-author of the study, published June 23 in Nature.

The implicit question is whether the process is unique to PTEN and its decoys, or applies to the human genome's other 19,000 pseudogenes. If so, the junk may actually be vitally important to development and disease.

"There's a huge domain of non-coding RNAs. Until now, we couldn't make sense of them," said study co-author Pier Paolo Pandolfi, also a Harvard Medical School geneticist. "Now we have a way to understand them. We're not in the dark."

Scientists have been aware of RNA since the 1960s, when they learned that genes code for what's now known as messenger RNA, which carry instructions to protein-manufacturing cellular factories. But the straightforward messenger model proved simplistic.

Other types of RNA, called microRNA and small interfering RNA, can bind to messenger RNA. This prevents gene instructions from reaching their destinations, and allows for fine-tuned gene control. Gene activity can be quickly shut off, and just as quickly allowed to proceed.

So-called RNA interference is now considered essential for coordinating the ultra-fast, ultra-complicated mixing-and-matching of proteins that takes place in every single cell, all the time. In 2006, the discoverers of RNA interference received a Nobel Prize. Researchers anticipated an RNA revolution.

In the latest study, the researchers flipped the standard script of RNA interference. Inspired by MIT geneticist Phil Sharp's discovery that synthetic messenger RNA could be used to trap microRNA — interfering with the interferer, so to speak — they wondered if cells might not already do that.

Indeed, each human genome has many pseudogenes, or near-perfect copies of functional genes. These pseudogenes produce RNA that doesn't seem to do anything, but simply floats in cellular space. Scientists have long assumed pseudogenes and their RNA to be so much cruft, the biological equivalent of leftover code that's yet to be excised from a program. But the researchers in this study, whose specialty is a tumor-suppressing gene called PTEN, noticed that RNA produced by PTEN's pseudogenes was shaped exactly like the real thing.

They hypothesized that PTEN's pseudogene RNA should work like a decoy, pulling in microRNA and small interfering RNA, allowing PTEN's messenger RNA to proceed unobstructed. Experiments showed that their guess was right.

To test their proposition, the researchers first amplified the expression of PTEN pseudogenes in laboratory cell cultures. As predicted, this increased PTEN protein production: The decoys did their job. When the researchers decreased PTEN pseudogene expression, PTEN protein levels fell. In mice, decreased PTEN expression often leads to cancer.

The researchers then studied expression levels of PTEN and its pseudogenes in samples of cancerous tissue, and found the patterns duplicated. It wasn't only PTEN that helped suppress tumors, but supposed junk. In their absence, would-be interfering RNA was unleashed.

The researchers dubbed the decoys "competitive endogenous RNA," or ceRNA. They speculate that regular messenger RNA could also function as ceRNA, as could non-coding RNA that's not produced by pseudogenes but hasn't yet been functionally identified.

According to Pandolfi, if the findings truly represent a widespread new class of RNA, they will double the known number of functional genetic elements.

"This brings into play thousands of RNAs that we previously had no idea what they did," said Salmena. "We think we've only hit the tip of the iceberg with this phenomena."

In two accompanying Nature commentaries, Thomas Jefferson University geneticist Isidore Rigoutsos and University of California, San Diego geneticist Frank Furnari lauded the work's immediate implications for cancer.

Furnari noted that altered PTEN gene expression patterns are seen in Cowden's disease and Bannayan-Zonana syndrome, raising the possibility that ceRNA is involved in those rare diseases. Rigoutsos agreed that the findings "could have broader implications beyond PTEN regulation."

"They made a very exciting observation. It raises the question of whether there's another level of regulation of gene expression," said Dinah Singer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, which helped fund the research. "Having made this observation, you can now look anywhere for it."

Singer declined to speculate on whether the newly described mechanism might eventually account for the so-called missing heritability, a term used by scientists to describe genetic risk factors that clearly exist but can't be linked to standard gene mutations.

"To what extent this is going to be a general mechanism, the onus is now on the scientific community to begin looking in other systems," said Singer. "I presume they will."

Image: Intensity of PTEN gene expression in normal and cancerous prostate tissue./Nature.

See Also:

Citations: "A coding-independent function of gene and pseudogene mRNAs regulates tumour biology." By Laura Poliseno, Leonardo Salmena, Jiangwen Zhang, Brett Carver, William J. Haveman & Pier Paolo Pandolfi. Nature, Vol. 465 No. 7301, June 23, 2010.

"Decoy for microRNAs." By Frank Furnari and Isidore Rigoutsos. Nature, Vol. 465 No. 7301, June 23, 2010.

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

Baby Red Panda Born at National Zoo

Posted: 24 Jun 2010 02:21 PM PDT

A baby red panda was born at the National Zoo in Washington, DC on June 16. The newborn is the first red panda to be born at the zoo in 15 years.

The proud parents, two-year-old Shama and three-year-old Tate, first met in February 2009, and got busy immediately. But because red pandas mate only once a year, and "because the two were inexperienced," it took them a few tries to get Shama pregnant, the National Zoo said in a press release.

"This birth indicates that the animals are comfortable and well adjusted in their home here," said Tony Barthel, curator of the Zoo's Asia Trail. "We are excited about the opportunity we'll have to watch and learn from the interactions between the red pandas as Shama raises the cub."

Despite their name, red pandas (Ailurus fulgens, also called "lesser panda," "bear cat" and "firefox") are more closely related to raccoons than to giant pandas. They live in cool bamboo forests in the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, in the Himalayas and in Burma. Fewer than 2,500 red pandas remain in the wild, making this birth a victory for conservationists worldwide as well as for its first-timer parents.

The red pandas' enclosure at the zoo is closed to the public to let Shama and her baby bond, but these early pictures are high-pitched-squeal-inducingly cute.

Images: Smithsonian

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