Designed to change
Scientists learn more about the adaptability of the adult brain
New research shows the brains of adult mice can rewire themselves to enhance their senses when they spend long periods of time in a dark environment.
Neurologists know that the human brain sometimes compensates for the loss of a specific sense by strengthening its processing of another. For example, someone born blind or who becomes blind early in life may develop exceptional hearing ability. But scientists have always thought this adaptability exists only for a small window of opportunity during childhood. Beyond that window, the brain becomes more hardwired and can no longer compensate.
But, in a study published recently in eNeuro, researchers discovered that brains in adult mice began to rewire their cell networks to increase hearing sensitivity after just one week of living in a dark compartment.
Randy Guliuzza, an engineer and author with the Institute for Creation Research, said this experiment illustrates “engineered adaptability.” When human engineers program adaptability into a machine, they design it to respond to specific changes in a fast, purposeful, regulated, and predictable way. For example, a thermostat set to 70 degrees signals the furnace to come on if the room temperature dips to 69 degrees and to stop when the temperature reaches 70 degrees again. No one thinks the communication between the thermostat and furnace happened accidentally. We assume some intelligent person programmed the heating system to change.
According to Guliuzza, adaptability in nature conforms to the same principles and points to a divine engineer, not to the evolutionary concept of adaptation by natural selection.
Evolutionary theory says change takes place over thousands of years and many generations by random chance. But the mouse experiment shows adaptability in nature can happen rapidly in a single individual. It demonstrates the specific, pre-programmed, predictable changes one would expect when an engineer has designed a system.
The researchers kept the mice in darkness for only seven days before their brains began to rewire, specifically targeting networks involved with hearing. Although it surprised the researchers that adult mice brains could still reprogram themselves, they could predict that, given that ability, visual deprivation would result in enhanced hearing sensitivity. It seems as though the brain is programmed to instruct the auditory cortex to compensate in a particular way if it’s dark for a long time. “Because it was designed by the ultimate engineer, biology is best understood by engineering principles,” Guliuzza said.
Doomsday update at Glacier National Park
More than a decade ago, officials erected signs in Montana’s Glacier National Park predicting that its glaciers would disappear by 2020. But the U.S. Geological Survey’s forecasts proved faulty, park spokeswoman Gina Kurzmen told CNN. Here in 2020, the glaciers still glisten throughout the park, and the signs are coming down.
New signs will reflect environmentalists’ revised prediction that the glaciers will vanish within several decades. According to Kurzmen, the signs will say, “When they will completely disappear depends on how and when we act.” One thing remains consistent she said, “The glaciers in the park are shrinking.”
Dan Fagre, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who blames shrinking glaciers on human activity, told CNN that the park’s glaciers would surely be gone before the end of the century.
But Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and policy adviser to The Heartland Institute, said that although “it is true that many glaciers have receded with warming over the last century or more, the causes are not obvious, and it is risky to predict long-term changes in any given location like Glacier National Park.” Scientists have documented changes in glaciers since long before anyone could blame human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, he said. Receding glaciers are uncovering 1,000 to 2,000-year-old tree stumps in Alaska, proving “that large changes in glaciers can have natural explanations.” —J.B.
Polly shares a cracker
A study published Jan. 9 in Current Biology suggests some nonmammal species have the ability to see another’s need and help out.
Researchers trained eight African grey parrots to give a human a metal ring in exchange for a tasty piece of walnut. Then the scientists placed the birds in adjoining compartments where they could pass the ring through a hole to a neighboring bird so it, too, could exchange the ring and get a treat.
When the researchers reversed the birds’ roles, those who previously received a ring from their neighbor reciprocated the favor. The birds who previously gave away the most rings received the most in return. The birds in the first trial, who did the giving, did not know that they would be in a position to receive later.
The researchers ruled out the possibility that the birds simply passed the rings to each other for fun. The birds did not pass rings to their neighbor when no human was present to give a treat or when the treat hole was covered. —J.B.
Mysteries in space
Astronomers are scratching their heads over mysterious, rapid flashes of radio energy coming from deep space.
The explosions of light, known as fast radio bursts or FRBs, last only a few thousandths of a second but produce as much energy as the sun does in nearly a century, Live Science reported. Astronomers determined the light bursts come from a medium-sized spiral galaxy, similar to the Milky Way, that they measure as 500 million light-years away. But the research team could not identify any radio sources in the galaxy that could cause the outbursts.
A dwarf galaxy 3 billion light-years away in 2016 produced the only other repeating FRBs scientists have ever documented, but the two galaxies don’t have the same pattern.
The results of the study appeared Jan. 6 in Nature.
Astronomers discovered FRBs in 2007, but, with the exception of the current flashes and those discovered in 2016, they all occurred as one-time, nonrepeating events. —J.B.
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