Starting up

We’ve all had (or think we’ve had) that million dollar idea. But how do you turn that idea into a reality?

In my new piece for Science Careers, I interview two budding entrepreneurs who are taking their ideas out of the lab and into industry. While the odds aren’t necessarily in their favor (75% of all startups fail), they both say that the learning experience and satisfaction of seeing their ideas come to fruition are worth the struggle.

Read about their process here, starting from the initial idea, to securing intellectual property protection, and the all-important fight to find funding.

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Humans can smell 1 trillion scents

Smell always seems to get the short shrift of the sensory world. We don’t rely on it to navigate and communicate like we do sight and sound; it doesn’t send shivers up our spine like a soft caress; and no one’s ever claimed a whiff of roses to be “orgasmic” like they might a bite of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.

But smell will be relegated to the sensory corner no longer! New research published in Science reveals that our olfactory abilities are far stronger than anyone had previously imagined, enabling us to detect more than 1 trillion different scents — 10 million times more than was originally thought.

I’ve got a full review of the article published on The Atlantic, including how the researchers arrived at this staggering number. So check it out, and don’t forget to stop and smell the roses; there may be more in there than you thought.

Read this mind-blowing article in less than 30 seconds!

Ok, maybe not literally 30 seconds. (Or mind-blowing, for that matter; mildly interesting, perhaps?)

By now we’ve all heard about the “insane new app” that allows you to read comfortably at speeds of 500 words per minute, roughly twice the standard reading pace. Topping out at 1000 words per minute, this, according to the experts at the Huffington Post, would compute to being able to get through a 300-page book like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in under 77 minutes, saving dozens of hours wasted delving through JK Rowling’s delightful prose. Just imagine how quickly you could get through a book of poetry this way!

The developers of this platform, Spritz, claim that the magic happens by projecting words one at a time in rapid-fire succession on the screen, a technique known as rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP), while also helpfully presenting them at their optimal recognition point (ORP), highlighting the letter most crucial for your brain to process the word. This then negates the time-consuming practice of eye saccades – moving your eyes across the screen as you read – searching for the ORP, typically located in the middle or slightly to the left of the word. Spritz combines ORP and RSVP so that words are not only presented at a blistering rate, not allowing you to internally vocalize Harry’s posh British accent, but also ensuring that they are located at the exact same – and optimal – position on the screen.

RSVP has been around for decades and has long been known to increase reading speeds. However, this technique has also come under criticism for impacting comprehension. One problem with RSVP is that it narrows your focus to only foveal vision, the content presented in the very center of your visual field. Unfortunately, the world (and the page) doesn’t just exist within these confines, meaning that parafoveal vision (the area outside of your direct focus) is neglected. However, a lot of important information is contained in those parafoveal regions, including cues about where to jump to next while reading. RSVP doesn’t allow for the preprocessing of this type of information, meaning you have no insight about what’s coming next in the text. Spritz claims that by placing words at their ORP the need for parafoveal preprocessing is negated because you automatically know where to focus for the next word. However, they don’t offer any solution to the loss of foreshadowing that is gleaned from preprocessing textual content.

Another concern over Spritz’s method is the absence of regressive saccades, the act of reading backwards. Again, reading backwards or re-reading information is undoubtedly time-consuming, but it can also be essential for fully comprehending a passage. What happens if you zone out while reading with Spritz? Better hope there wasn’t anything important that you missed, because there’s no going back, only onwards and upwards!

Dr. Benjamim Gagl, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Salzburg, explains that, far from being unnecessary time-consumers, these visual-cognitive processes are essential for adequate comprehension: “Although, these paradigms [RSVP and ORP] were very useful for various reasons, they are outdated and eye movement evidence suggests that parafoveal preprocessing, as well as regressive saccades, are central to normal fluent reading. Both parafoveal preprocessing and regressive saccades are not possible in a RSVP paradigm, which leads to differences in brain responses when compared to more natural reading paradigms.”

Despite these shortcomings, I have to confess, I was pretty impressed when I tried the beta mode on the company’s website – you can certainly discern what the passages are saying as they sprint across your screen, and it seemed to require less effort than deliberate skimming or other speed-reading methods. However, despite their claims of total comprehension, I did feel like something was lost in terms of processing and retaining content, not to mention the sheer pleasure that can be derived from reading. Previous studies of world-class speed-readers have shown that even among the best, adequate comprehension (roughly 75%) is lost at speeds of 600 words per minute. And any time you need to re-read a passage, in an abstruse piece of literature, say, or with an unfamiliar academic paper, Spritz seems like it would hurt more than it would help.

And then there’s the concern of fatigue. Somehow I doubt I’d be able to manage much more than 20 minutes using the device (I confess, I’m weak) before the words started blurring together and I lost my place – and my motivation. Admittedly though, screen fatigue happens even with conventional reading methods, so perhaps the gain in processing speed balances out the loss in total time spent doing it.

Clearly this app is not for everyone, nor for every purpose. Spritz certainly would have come in handy while I was prepping for my PhD oral defense, trying to skim through the hundreds of papers I’d read over the last three years. But when it comes to my Potter, I think I’ll stick with my internal narration. Expelliarmus!

Also posted on Mind Read.

The science behind the meat sweats

A  friend of mine asked that I write about an important medical condition that will likely afflict us all at one point in our lives (except perhaps vegetarians). A diagnosis involving discomfort, physiological distress, remorse, and possibly embarrassment. I am referring, of course, to the meat sweats.

Following a barbecue, particularly Korean or Argentinean in nature, or a rib-eating contest, one might find oneself feeling flushed, overcome by fatigue, and noticing a telltale dampness underneath the arms. As your body processes what it has just been forced to consume, you might begin to perspire profusely, purging liquid-protein through your pores.

While scientists posit that the meat sweats aren’t actually real, and indeed there are no academic papers dedicated to the topic, we carnivores know better.

There are a couple popular theories regarding the sweats, ranging from the high salt content in many cured meats – your body sweating more in an effort to expel the extra sodium – to the pure adrenaline experienced while eating another formerly living creature (apparently this is even greater if you hunt and kill the animal yourself).

Most likely though, the meat sweats are caused by the thermic effect of protein. While it may seem like every calorie you eat fixes itself permanently to your gut, the energy in food is conserved in several different ways. This includes fueling the process your body must go through to breakdown and digest what it is consuming. Remember the rumor that eating celery actually burns calories? This is purportedly because your body uses more energy to digest the fibrous vegetable than it contains (this is unfortunately not true, though you’re still unlikely to gain much weight on a diet of rabbit food).

As your body works to breakdown a meal, it begins to heat up, and just like any machine, the harder it works, the hotter it gets. Eating a lot of anything can cause this phenomenon, but a diet high in protein is particularly susceptible to turning you into a furnace. This is because protein has more than twice the thermic effect of fat or carbohydrates, with 15-35% of the energy consumed in a steak being required to digest it. This applies whether it’s chicken, hamburgers or tofu you’re chowing down on, though the soy sweats are a lesser-known phenomenon, probably because there aren’t many tofu-eating contests out there.

This thermic effect is one reason diets like Atkins and Paleo have taken off. However, before you dive face first into a plate of pulled pork, keep in mind that fat (the other main ingredient in bacon) has twice the energy density of protein at 9 calories per gram, but only burns off at a measly 5-10%.

So with barbecue season around the corner, try to control yourself and consume in moderation. But if this isn’t possible, prepare yourself a comfortable digestion spot on the couch, maybe with a towel underneath, and get ready to ride it out. At least you can be comforted that science is on your side.

Happy meating!

How a pregnant mother’s diet could change a child’s brain

Scientists have pursued every possible avenue to try to figure out why we keep getting fatter. They’ve explored our genes, our brains, our hormones and our gut bacteria, not to mention our fatty, sugary diets and sedentary lifestyles. Now, a recent study has come out blaming our expanding waistlines and poor health on our parents’ behaviors before we were born.

My newest article is up on The Atlantic, discussing recent research on the impact a mother’s diet has on her offspring’s health, affecting our brains and subsequently our bodies. This line of research isn’t new — other studies have shown links between a woman’s health during pregnancy and her child’s weight later in life — but this is one of the first to provide a potential explanation for this phenomenon by looking in the brain at some crucial hunger hormones.

However, you can’t blame all of your problems on your parents; what you eat still has a major impact on how these brain changes manifest:

Now, I’m all for shifting blame away from myself and onto my parents, but I feel that, like every possible explanation behind the obesity epidemic, this is only one piece of the puzzle. Genes undoubtedly play a role in body mass, fat percentage, and metabolism, but so does what you eat and how many calories you burn through physical activity…The problem of obesity, like so many health and social issues we face today, is that there isn’t just a single contributor to the problem. If there were, it would have been solved by now.

Check out the entire piece here.

Seeing left, smelling right

We’ve all heard about the “left-brain/right-brain” hype, which, to be honest, is really just a bunch of malarkey. Supposedly, a bigger right hemisphere means you’ll be a great artist, and a larger left indicates a penchant for science. If the dancer spins clockwise, you’re right-brained, while if you’re left-brained she twirls counter-clockwise.

Fortunately, all of these neural conspiracy theories have been largely debunked. However, the fact does remain that we do have two hemispheres that are connected but divided – a cortical “separate but equal,” if you will. And oftentimes, one of these hemispheres is larger than the other, the smaller being situated slightly behind. Now, again, this is not to say that the bigger hemisphere is better, simply that they are asymmetric, and presumably this asymmetry has evolved for a reason.

Researchers from University College London have investigated the purpose of this neural asymmetry on a much smaller scale using the zebrafish, a common animal model used for investigating basic but deceptively complex brain-related phenomena thanks to their simplified central nervous system. Published in the journal Current Biology, the researchers discovered that neuronal asymmetry lends itself towards enhanced processing of sensory information in the zebrafish, and that a symmetrical brain can result in an impairment of the processing of visual or olfactory stimuli.

The researchers focused on the habenula – an area located near the thalamaus that is a type of way station in the brain, processing sensory information. The habenula receives inputs from around the brain and helps to designate the appropriate neurochemical output for neurons further down the line. However, cells in the left and right habenula react differently to different types of stimuli, resulting in separate projections to other areas of the brain.

In the current study, cells in the right habenula were largely responsible for receiving odor information, while the left-sided neurons processed visual information. Very few neurons responded to both types of stimuli. These left and right neurons also had distinct outputs, the left heading to the dorsal, or top, interpeduncular nuclei (IPN), while the right had outputs to the ventral, or bottom, IPN. These ventral and dorsal IPN neurons subsequently had their own distinct outputs as well, meaning the entire operation of processing visual and olfactory information was distinct, divided between the two hemispheres.

The real test of any scientific phenomenon though, is what happens when you disrupt this process (scientists really just like to mess things up to see what will happen). Will the other hemisphere take over, or will that function be entirely lost?

To find out, the researchers “shocked” the fish with cold – meaning when the fish were still embryos, they exposed them to extreme cold with the hopes of disrupting their typical gene expression and thus their cell development. In fact, using cold shock was so successful, it resulted in a complete reversal of many of the fishes’ neurons, meaning that what was right was now left, and left was right. Not only did this lead to a switch in the processing of sensory information, but the entire assembly line from the habenula neurons on down was reversed, a mirrored reflection of the fishes’ normal cell functions. Light information was now processed on the right side, however, the projections to the IPN remained the same. So light processed on the right side projected to the dorsal IPN, whereas previously the dorsal IPN had been activated by the left habenula light response.

The final step was to find out what happens when asymmetry is completely lost, to ascertain whether there was a functional benefit to this lateralization (again, scientists really just like to mess with a perfectly good brain process). To do this, the researchers manipulated the fishes’ neurons so that the habenula cells were either all right or all left. That isn’t to say that all the neurons were located on either the left or the right side, but rather the cells acted like they were all “right” neurons or “left” neurons, receiving inputs and creating outputs from and to their respective sources.

This complete lateralization resulted in a loss of the opposite side’s function, meaning the “double-left” fish had exceptional vision but were unable to process odors, while the “double-right” fish were blind to the light but had a super-power sense of smell.

Finally, even fish that were raised in complete darkness still showed this laterality when it came to processing visual information, meaning that the brain’s left-right organization was dependent on gene expression, not the cells’ experience or exposure to light.

From this, the researchers concluded that it doesn’t actually matter which side the cells are on, so long as each type of cell and its connections are in place. But a loss of those neurons, even if others are in their place, leads to complete functional disruption. And really, this makes sense; it is not the location of the cell but its connections that truly matter, dictating its function.

Yet another instance of science proving cool stuff that, if we really thought about it, we already kind of figured to be true.

Also posted on Mind Read.

The White Stuff

Whether it goes in our mouths or up our noses, we’re drawn to the powdery chemical confectionaries that can both give us pleasure and cause us harm — The White Stuff

I’m very excited to announce a new project I’m launching today on Beacon Reader, The White Stuff, where I’ll be writing about our favorite vices: food and drugs. I’m trying to bring some sense into the ongoing debate about what we put into our bodies, and my goal is to provide unbiased research-based reporting on the latest science and policy news on addiction, nutrition and everything in between.

Beacon is a new kind of journalism platform that, instead of being financed with ads or commissions, lets you fund my work directly. In addition to my own writing, you’ll get access to exclusive content from all of the other amazing journalists on the site who write about politics, technology, global issues, sports and more.

However, I need help getting the project off the ground. In order for the project to launch, I need 25 people to subscribe in the next 14 days. If you like what you’ve read on Brain Study, please help with my new endeavor by subscribing and sharing my project page for The White Stuff (there’s even a snazzy promo video).

I’ll still be writing from time to time on Brain Study, but most of the action is going to be over on Beacon, so if you want to stay up-to-date, please subscribe!