New Zealand parrot can predict probability of an event

A new study, published in Nature Communications, provides some interesting details about the Nestor notabilis, a New Zealand parrot also called “kea”.
Researchers have in fact discovered that this bird can predict the probability of an event occurring, a neurobiological characteristic that was seen only in humans and in some more evolved primates.

In fact, making predictions about an event is one of the characteristics in which humans are very good, as explained by the main author of the study, Amalia Bastos, PhD candidate at the University of Auckland.
The kea lives in the mountainous regions of South Island, New Zealand, an area where food is scarce. They are quite exploratory birds compared to many other species of parrots. In the course of the experiments organized by Bastos and colleagues, this clever bird has shown that it can predict the course of events by thinking only about a few clues.

The researchers showed the bird two jars containing black and orange tokens. The jars were transparent, so the bird could see the contents. The birds were then taught that black tokens could be exchanged for food.
Two researchers side by side pulled a token out of each jar with a closed hand and the bird had to touch one of the two closed hands trying to guess the presence of the black token to get the reward.

This means that the birds had to choose the jar that offered them the best chance to get a reward, also because the jars contained different amounts of black or orange tokens.
The birds were able to choose the hand that they thought was most likely to contain a black token depending on which jar the hand had taken the token from. In practice, the bird observed the colour ratios in the jars, imagined the quantities and made the most appropriate choice, thus trying to predict the future.

The confirmation also came from another experiment when the bird had to choose between two researchers who took the tokens from the jars. The birds had previously observed one of the two researchers always taking black tokens even when the orange ones were outnumbered. The birds showed that they could remember who this person was and chose his hand.

The parrot showed that it could command different information from different sources in order to recreate a prediction of probability in the mind, something that surprised the researchers themselves and showed that such a characteristic, typical of human intelligence, can evolve even in such small brains.

Bowel bacteria reprogram mucosal genetic activity

Another way in which microbes in the intestines affect the human body has been discovered by the research group of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Comparing the DNA of the cells in the intestinal mucosa of two groups of mice, one with a normal microbiome and the other made up of mice grown under sterile conditions, the researchers found that the same microbes in the intestine can reprogram genetic activity by controlling the development of intestinal inflammation.

In essence, intestinal bacteria can reprogram DNA activity in mucosal cells, something that can have a big impact on the health of the intestine itself.
In order to confirm this, the researchers carried out experiments on mice, dividing them into two groups, one with mice with a normal intestinal microbiome, i.e. the intestine normally colonized by bacteria, and another with mice that grew in sterile conditions, and therefore with much fewer bacteria in the intestine.

The mice were then treated with a chemical that attacks the intestinal mucosa, which produces acute inflammation.
In mice with a normal microbiome, the treatment led to a decrease in DNA methylation in the cells of the intestinal mucosa.

As a result, several genes were activated that play an important role in inflammation and cancer. In the other group, however, the chemical did not cause many changes in genetic activity, which shows that the differences in methylation were caused by bacteria and not by the chemical directly, as Frank Lyko, who conducted the research together with Yehudit Bergman, explains.

“The microbiome seems to have a significant influence on animal health: it ensures normal intestinal development by using epigenetic programming to activate the genes that guide the regeneration of the intestinal mucosa. In mice without microbes, however, this activation does not take place,” explains Lyko again, implying the important role of intestinal bacteria in epigenetic regulation.

“We have shown that exposure to microbiota in acute dextrans-induced sodium sulfate inflammation causes deep DNA methylation and changes in the accessibility of chromatin to regulatory elements, leading to alterations in gene expression programs enriched with functions associated with colitis and colon cancer,” the researchers report again in the study abstract where it is clearly reported that epigenetic changes caused by microbes in the gut are essential for proper homeostasis in vivo.

Obesity promotes high blood pressure: scientists discover why

Obesity promotes the onset of high blood pressure and hypertension and a team of researchers from the School of Medicine at the University of Virginia seems to have discovered the trigger.
As Swapnil K. Sonkusare of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics of UVA explains, there are cellular mechanisms that cause blood pressure in obese people to increase.
This means that if appropriate compounds are designed to target these mechanisms, it may be possible to treat and eliminate hypertension in obese patients.

Obesity is a global problem: the number of obese people has almost tripled since 1975 (especially in Western countries) and with it the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and strokes has also increased.
Scientists have already concluded in the past that hypertension in obese passers-by is related to problems in the behaviour of endothelial cells lining the arteries, but the reasons have been unclear.

The Sonkusare research team discovered the existence of a protein called TRPV4 on the membranes surrounding endothelial cells. These proteins allow calcium to enter the cells while maintaining stable blood pressure levels.
Obesity affects this very protein and makes it defective, as Sonkusare himself explains: “Under healthy conditions, TRPV4 in these tiny microdomains helps maintain normal blood pressure. For the first time, we show the sequence of events leading to a microenvironment that is harmful to calcium intake through TRPV4. I think the concept of pathological microdomain will be very important not only for studies on obesity, but also for studies on other cardiovascular disorders”.

The same researchers have also found that obesity increases the levels of enzymes that produce peroxynitrites in microdomains containing TRPV4. So targeting peroxynitrite or enzymes directly could become an effective way to prevent or treat high blood pressure from obesity without the side effects that would result from directly targeting the TRPV4 protein.
TRPV4 protein is present in many other tissues, from the brain to the bladder, so if you target it with a drug you would get desired side effects.

Four Sigmatic: Bogus or Not?

We would like to write a little bit about Four Sigmatic and some of the claims made on their website. Four Sigmatic claims to offer so called ‘superfoods’ which have immeasurable health benefits, and which (according to this company) more people should be eating and drinking (surprise, surprise). Currently their main product is their mushroom coffee, but there are many others. We had tried their mushroom coffee and found that the taste of mushroom from it was quite mild, and not as gross as it sounds.

We do not believe that Four Sigmatic is a magic bullet, or that their products necessarily have any huge benefit. So buyer beware.

Please refer to this review and study of Four Sigmatic which examines some of the papers that may support Four Sigmatic’s claims.

Ice on Mercury in permanently shaded craters at the poles

There might actually be ice on Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun in our solar system. Although it’s hard to believe that ice could be present on a planet that exceeds 400 °C in surface temperatures, a new study shows that ice could exist thanks to the same heat as the planet.

On Mercury, in fact, there are small areas in craters at the poles that basically never see sunlight. Ice can form in these areas, as scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology explain.
The model developed by the researchers sees first of all the extreme heat of the planet releasing the so-called hydroxyl groups, minerals present in the surface soil of the planet. This process leads to the production of water and hydrogen molecules that rise up as they move around the planet.

Most water molecules are decomposed by sunlight or rise far above the surface of the planet itself. However, some of these molecules end up landing in the above areas near the poles, areas in permanent shade due to the crater formation.
Since there is no atmosphere on Mercury, there is not even a transmission of air that can conduct heat. This means that these water molecules that go to rest inside these shaded craters freeze permanently.

“It’s a bit like the Hotel California song. Water molecules can get into the shadows but they can never leave,” explains Thomas Orlando, the studio’s lead author.
This process would form up to 10 percent of the total ice on the planet and could form up to 1013 kilograms of ice in 3 million years.

On the other hand, already in 2011, NASA’s MESSENGER space probe had identified the presence of typical signs of ice around the poles, signs that indicated the presence of “dirty” ice hiding in the permanent shadow in the polar craters, craters naturally formed by the impact of asteroids and meteorites in the planet’s past.