Thursday, August 19, 2010

READING TERRORISTS' MINDS ABOUT IMMINENT ATTACK

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Imagine technology that allows you to get inside the mind of a terrorist to know how, when and where the next attack will occur.

That's not nearly as far-fetched as it seems, according to a new Northwestern University study.

Say, for purposes of illustration, that the chatter about an imminent terrorist attack is mounting, and specifics about the plan emerge, about weapons that will be used, the date of such a dreaded event and its location.

If the new test used by the Northwestern researchers had been used in such a real-world situation with the same type of outcome that occurred in the lab, the study suggests, culpability extracted from the chatter could be confirmed.

In other words, if the test conducted in the Northwestern lab ultimately is employed for such real-world scenarios, the research suggests, law enforcement officials ultimately may be able to confirm details about an attack - date, location, weapon -- that emerges from terrorist chatter.

In the Northwestern study, when researchers knew in advance specifics of the planned attacks by the make-believe "terrorists," they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy in the lab, said J. Peter Rosenfeld, professor of psychology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

For the first time, the Northwestern researchers used the P300 testing in a mock terrorism scenario in which the subjects are planning, rather than perpetrating, a crime. The P300 brain waves were measured by electrodes attached to the scalp of the make-believe "persons of interest" in the lab.

The most intriguing part of the study in terms of real-word implications, Rosenfeld said, is that even when the researchers had no advance details about mock terrorism plans, the technology was still accurate in identifying critical concealed information.
"Without any prior knowledge of the planned crime in our mock terrorism scenarios, we were able to identify 10 out of 12 terrorists and, among them, 20 out of 30 crime- related details," Rosenfeld said. "The test was 83 percent accurate in predicting concealed knowledge, suggesting that our complex protocol could identify future terrorist activity."

Rosenfeld is a leading scholar in the study of P300 testing to reveal concealed information. Basically, electrodes are attached to the scalp to record P300 brain activity -- or brief electrical patterns in the cortex -- that occur, according to the research, when meaningful information is presented to a person with "guilty knowledge."

Research on the P300 testing emerged in the 1980s as a handful of scientists looked for an alternative to polygraph tests for lie detection. Since it was invented in the 1920s, polygraphy has been under fire, especially by academics, with critics insisting that such testing measures emotion rather than knowledge.

Rosenfeld and Northwestern graduate student John B. Meixner are co-investigators of the study, outlined in a paper titled "A Mock Terrorism Application of the P300-based Concealed Information Test," published recently in the journal Psychophysiology.

Study participants (29 Northwestern students) planned a mock attack based on information they were given about bombs and other deadly weapons. They then had to write a letter detailing the rationale of their plan to encode the information in memory.

Then, with electrodes attached to their scalps, they looked at a computer display monitor that presented names of stimuli. The names of Boston, Houston, New York, Chicago and Phoenix, for example, were shuffled and presented at random. The city that study participants chose for the major terrorist attack evoked the largest P300 brainwave responses.

The test includes four classes of stimuli known as targets, non-targets, probes and irrelevants. Targets are sights, sounds or other stimuli the person being questioned already knows or is taught to recognize before the test. Probes are stimuli only a guilty suspect would be likely to know. And irrelevants are stimuli unlikely to be recognized.

"Since 9/11 preventing terrorism is a priority," Rosenfeld said. "Sometimes you catch suspicious people entering a building. You suspect that they're terrorists, and you have some leads from the chatter. You've heard they're going to attack one city or another in one fashion or another on one date or another. Our hope is that our new complex protocol - different from the first P300 technology developed in the 1980s - will one day confirm such chatter in the real world."

In the laboratory setting, study participants only had about 30 minutes to learn about the attack and to detail their plans. Thus, Rosenfeld said, encoding of guilty knowledge was relatively shallow. It is assumed that real terrorists rehearse details central to a planned attack repeatedly, leading to deeper encoding of related memories, he said. "We suspect if our test was employed in the real world the deeper encoding of planned crime-related knowledge could further boost detection of terrorist intentions."

Northwestern University

FROM THE HEART: HOW CELLS DIVIDE TO FORM DIFFERENT BUT RELATED MUSCLE GROUPS

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Using the model organism Ciona intestinalis, commonly known as the sea squirt, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have uncovered the origins of the second heart field in vertebrates.

Sea squirts are bag-like gelatinous creatures whose full genome has been sequenced--one that shares 80 percent of its genes with humans. Though its body is clearly more primitive than creatures with backbones and spinal columns, the sea squirt nevertheless offers a valuable resource to scientists seeking to understand the evolutionary links between these simple chordates and more complex creatures.

Vertebrate hearts form from two distinct cell populations, termed first heart field and second heart field. From these fields are derived, respectively, the left ventricle and the right ventricle and outflow tract of the heart. The lineage relationship between these cell types was uncertain but mysteriously, a number of reports linked cells in the second heart field to muscle cells in the lower jaw in birds and mammals.

"The heart-jaw connection is evolutionarily ancient," said developmental biologist Mike Levine."We think the sea squirt is valuable as a developmental model to study these connections because it is a simple chordate that is the closest living relative of vertebrates, including humans."

By tracking the movement of specific cells during embryonic development, Levine and his team found that heart progenitor cells also produce the atrial siphon muscles (ASMs--responsible for expelling water during feeding) in Ciona. Researchers think it is possible that the atrial siphon in the sea squirt is the equivalent of the lower jaw in vertebrates. During development, the ASM precursor cells in Ciona express the same markers seen in cells that form the jaw muscles and second heart field in vertebrates, evidence that supports the idea that these muscle groups are linked. These results also suggest that "re-routing" of jaw cells into the developing heart could lead to evolution of the more intricate hearts seen in higher vertebrates such as humans.

"This is an exciting discovery, because we still don't know the rules for evolving novelty," Levine explained. "We understand how you lose things via evolution, but we really don't understand how you make something more complex."

The National Science Foundation

EYE MOVEMENT TESTS IDENTIFY BRAIN ABNORMALITIES IN FAMILY MEMBERS OF INDIVIDUALS WITH AUTISM

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Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago report that first-degree relatives of individuals with autism have abnormal eye movements similar to some individuals with autism, suggesting that these alterations within sensorimotor and cognitive brain circuitry may be familial traits.

The study is published in the August issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

Autism, a lifelong disorder with few known causes, is hereditary but has considerable genetic and behavioral variation. People with autism often have social and communication impairments, behavioral inflexibility, and difficulty controlling or regulating behavior.

Researchers at UIC conducted eye movement tests and other assessments of neurobehavioral function in 57 first-degree relatives of individuals with autism. They compared the results with 40 healthy matched controls that did not have a family member with autism.

The tasks assessed saccades, or rapid eye movements that shift gaze between objects in the field of vision, and smooth-pursuit eye movements, which stabilize gaze on slowly moving objects. The researchers found that family members of individuals with autism performed less accurately when making saccades, made slower smooth pursuit eye movements, and had difficulty inhibiting reflexive saccades.

“We found different parts of the brain controlling different types of eye movements,” said John Sweeney, senior author of the study, professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine in the UIC department of psychiatry. “Some family members had problems in the cerebellum, some had problems in the prefrontal cortex, and some had a problem in how the frontal and parietal cortex was interacting.”

The abnormalities, associated with several brain pathways, have been linked to autism and are important for language skills, motor control and the regulation of behavior.

“The different types of brain system abnormalities in different people allows us also to think that we might be able to tease out heterogeneity within the broad spectrum of autism in a way that could narrow groups down enough to be able to track genetic and other causes of illness in subgroups with the disorder,” Sweeney said.

The findings may provide researchers insight about which brain system and/or gene abnormalities increase the likelihood that someone is going to develop autism, or perhaps, have a child with autism.

“It's really a way for us to understand potential risk mechanisms for clinical practice. It also gives us a potential objective laboratory test to evaluate how new treatments are affecting brain function,” Sweeney said. “It opens up a window for us to tackle some really big, unanswered questions in autism.”

The researchers also found that family members had executive dysfunction on neuropsychological tests, including a reduced ability to recall visual-spatial sequences. Communication abnormalities and increased rates of obsessive and compulsive behaviors also were observed.

University of Illinois at Chicago

CHILDHOOD PERSONALITY TRAITS PREDICT ADULT BEHAVIOR

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Personality traits observed in childhood are a strong predictor of adult behavior, a study by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, the Oregon Research Institute and University of Oregon suggests.

The study will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, a quarterly publication of the Association for Research in Personality, the European Association of Social Psychology, the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and co-sponsored by the Asian Association of Social Psychology and the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists.

Using data from a 1960s study of approximately 2,400 ethnically diverse elementary schoolchildren in Hawaii, researchers compared teacher personality ratings of the students with videotaped interviews of 144 of those individuals 40 years later.

What they discovered was surprising, said Christopher S. Nave, a doctoral candidate at UC Riverside and lead author of the paper, “On the Contextual Independence of Personality: Teachers’ Assessments Predict Directly Observed Behavior After Four Decades.” Co-authors of the paper are Ryne A. Sherman, a UCR doctoral candidate; David C. Funder, UCR professor of psychology; Sarah E. Hampson, a researcher at the Oregon Research Institute; and Lewis R. Goldberg, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Oregon. The research was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging through a grant to the Oregon Research Institute.

“We remain recognizably the same person,” Nave said. “This speaks to the importance of understanding personality because it does follow us wherever we go across time and contexts.”

The researchers examined four personality attributes – verbally fluent, adaptable, impulsive and self-minimizing. They found that:

• Youngsters identified as verbally fluent – defined as unrestrained talkativeness – tended, as middle-aged adults, to display interest in intellectual matters, speak fluently, try to control the situation, and exhibit a high degree of intelligence. Children rated low in verbal fluency by their teachers were observed as adults to seek advice, give up when faced with obstacles, and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.

• Children rated as highly adaptable – defined as coping easily and successfully with new situations – tended, as middle-aged adults, to behave cheerfully, speak fluently and show interest in intellectual matters. Those who rated low in adaptability as children were observed as adults to say negative things about themselves, seek advice and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.

• Students rated as impulsive as adults were inclined to speak loudly, display a wide range of interests and be talkative. Those who were rated low on impulsivity were observed, as adults, to be fearful or timid, keep others at a distance and express insecurity.

• Children whose teachers rated them as having a tendency to self-minimize – defined as humble, minimizing their own importance or never showing off – as adults were likely to express guilt, seek reassurance, say negative things about themselves and express insecurity. Those who were ranked low as self-minimizing were observed as adults to speak loudly, show interest in intellectual matters and exhibit condescending behavior.

“We think that personality resides within us,” Nave said. “It’s a part of us, a part of our biology. Life events still influence our behaviors, yet we must acknowledge the power of personality in understanding future behavior as well.”

Further study will expand knowledge that “one’s personality has important outcomes associated with it.” In addition, future research will “help us understand how personality is related to behavior as well as examine the extent to which we may be able to change our personality.”

University of California, Riverside

GENOMIC SEQUENCING OF MARINE SPONGE PUBLISHED; REVEALED EARLY GENETIC COMPLEXITY AND ROOTS OF CANCER

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The publication of the complete genomic sequence of a living marine sponge reveals genes dating back hundreds of millions of years –– a result far exceeding the expectations of the scientific world.

Four scientists from UC Santa Barbara contributed to the sequencing of the genome of a Great Barrier Reef marine sponge, from a 650 million-year-old group of organisms –– a project that indicates there were astonishingly rich genetic resources available at the dawn of the animal kingdom. The sequencing also reveals some basic information about cancer. The findings are published in the August 5th issue of the scientific journal Nature.

"This is a milestone sequence," said Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director of UCSB's Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI) and Harriman Chair in Neuroscience Research. "This sponge is the most basal animal for which we have a genome."

A genome represents all biological information required to create and maintain an organism. DNA is the language of the genome, and DNA is separated into genes that give directions for the creation of discrete parts of any organism. The entire genome of the sponge Amphimedon queenslandica is available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=genomeprj&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=Overview&list_uids=43557.

Kosik explained that the evolutionary origin of animals was marked by the ability of individual cells to assume specialized properties and work together for the greater good of the entire organism. "The sponge represents a window on this ancient and momentous event," he said. "Curiously, the cells of a sponge bear little resemblance to cells found in the rest of the animal kingdom. For example, sponges lack neurons; however, the sponge genome reveals the presence of many genes found in neurons." (The Kosik and Oakley research teams published this finding in 2007, in the journal PLos One. See: http://www.ia.ucsb.edu/pa/display.aspx?pkey=1612)

The sponge genome reveals that, along the way toward the emergence of animals, genes for an entire network of specialized cells evolved. "This network laid the basis for the core gene logic of organisms that no longer functioned as single cells, but as a cooperative community of specialized cells –– all geared toward the survival of a complex multicellular creature," said Kosik.

Co-author Todd Oakley, professor in UCSB's Department of Ecology, Evolution & Marine Biology, explained that this work also helps scientists to understand cancer. "Once there is a transition from single cell to multicellular organisms, conflict is set up between the different cells of the multicellular organism," said Oakley. "It is in an individual cell's best interest to keep replicating, and this actually is what cancer is –– the uncontrolled replication of cells in the body."

Evolution had to solve the problem of how to police this uncontrolled replication, Oakley explained. Normally, body cells don't replicate out of control because there are policing mechanisms in place. When these policing mechanisms break down, cancer develops. "So in the history of animals, we can see this link with cancer, because the genes that are involved in the transition to multiple cells during evolution are also known to be linked to cancer," Oakley said.

As a neuroscientist, Kosik has great interest in synapses, which have a unique structure. The sponge has no neurons; however, it has the genes that encode for proteins which are used in other animals to build synapses. Synapses are a set of proteins that allow two neurons to talk to each other. They also allow a neuron to talk to a muscle and make it move. No other cells have synapses.

Kosik emphasized that scientists must go far back in evolutionary time in order to understand the origins of the brain, neurons, and synapses. "You really have to go back to the beginning of animals to understand what happened that led to the awakening of the human brain," he said.

"We had asked, 'Can we look at the evolutionary origins of the synapse?'", said Kosik. He explained that the marine sponge is called the most basal of all animals because the sponge ancestor probably branched off first from the original animal, before any other existent lineage.

"You had some ancestral animal that is long-since extinct, and its descendants became these modern-day sponges that we have, and there were other descendants that became the rest of the animal kingdom –– from jellyfish to baboons," said Kosik. "We speak of the sponge as being this earliest branching phylum, or group of animals. What distinguishes the sponge from all the other animals is that it does not have any nervous system or synapses."

He explained that the conclusion of that early work –– the finding that genes that encode a synapse are present in the sponge –– has important implications. "The conclusion of that paper said that what evolution did was exaptation," said Kosik. "This is a very important technical word. Evolution takes something that was evolved for one purpose and uses it for something else. Nature used this still-mysterious sponge structure to make the synapse, an exaptation of certain genes, which then became a key part of the nervous system."

Kosik said that another reason the discovery was important is that one of the ways that some anti-evolutionists have criticized evolution as an idea is by using the term "irreducible complexity." In other words, they say that the biology of certain organs is too complex to have developed through evolution. "How do you evolve an eye?" asked Kosik. "An eye is very complex, you can't have half an eye. You need a whole eye to function. If you are missing a piece, it is not an eye. How do you get the whole eye to evolve? This has been something that people who have criticized evolution have not understood."

Critics of evolution pose irreducible complexity as a problem. "The evolutionary biologists have very good answers to that question," said Kosik. "One of them is the following result: A synapse looks like it is a structure that you cannot take apart; if you did, it would lose its function. In the sponge, nature clearly took it apart. And a piece of it is functioning very well in a species that has been quite successful for the last 650 million years."

Kosik explained further the importance of new information regarding evolution. Long before the current paper was developed, co-author Bernard M. Degman allowed the UCSB research teams to look at the preliminary sequence data. They were very surprised to find that, even though the sponges do not have synapses or neurons, they have the genes for synapses and neurons. The genes were there but they weren't making the structures –– which is the finding Kosik and Oakley published in 2007. "This work raised a lot of questions," he said. "One obvious question is: What are the genes even doing there if they don't have neurons or synapses? We still don't know the answer to that question."

(Foto: UC Santa Barbara)

University of California, Santa Barbara

BEDROCK IS A MILESTONE IN CLIMATE RESEARCH

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After years of concentrated effort, scientists from the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project hit bedrock more than 8,300 feet below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet last week. The project has yielded ice core samples that may offer valuable insights into how the world can change during periods of abrupt warming.

Led by Denmark and the United States, and comprised of scientists from 14 countries, the NEEM team has been working to get at the ice near bedrock level because that ice dates back to the Eemian interglacial period, about 115,000 to 130,000 years ago, when temperatures on Earth were warmer by as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit than they are today. The Eemian period ice cores should yield a host of information about conditions on Earth during that time of abrupt climate change, giving climate scientists valuable data about future conditions as our own climate changes.

"Scientists from 14 countries have come together in a common effort to provide the science our leaders and policy makers need to plan for our collective future," said Jim White, director of University of Colorado at Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and an internationally known ice core expert. White was the lead U.S. investigator on the project, and his work there was supported primarily by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs. Other U.S. institutions collaborating on the NEEM effort include Oregon State University, Penn State, the University of California, San Diego, and Dartmouth College.

Greenland is covered by an ice sheet thousands of feet thick that built up over millennia as layers of snow and ice formed. The layers contain information about atmospheric conditions that existed when they were originally formed, including how warm and moist the air was, and the concentrations of various greenhouse gases. While three previous Greenland ice cores drilled in the past 20 years covered the last ice age and the period of warming to the present, the deeper ice layers, representing the warm Eemian and the period of transition to the ice age were compressed and folded, making them difficult to interpret, said White.

After radar measurements taken through the ice sheet from above indicated that the Eemian ice layers below the NEEM site were thicker, more intact and likely contained more accurate and specific information, researchers began setting up an extensive state-of-the-art research facility there. Despite being located in one of the most remote and harsh places on Earth, the NEEM team constructed a large dome, the drilling rig for extracting three-inch-diameter ice cores, drilling trenches, laboratories and living quarters, and officially started drilling in June 2009.

According to Simon Stephenson, Director of the Arctic Sciences Division at NSF, the accomplishment at NEEM "is important because the ability to measure gases and dust trapped in the ice at high resolution is likely to provide new insight into how the global climate changes naturally, and will help us constrain climate models used to predict the future." Stephenson added that the NEEM ice cores will allow scientists to measure conditions in the past with more specificity--down to single years.

"We are delighted that the NEEM project has completed the drilling through the ice-sheet," Stephenson said. "This has been a very successful international collaboration, and NSF is pleased to have supported the U.S. component."

Accurate climate models based in part on the data collected at NEEM could play an important role in helping human civilization adapt to a changing climate. During the Eemian period, for example, the Greenland ice sheet was much smaller, and global sea levels were about 15 feet higher than they are today, a height that would swamp many major cities around the world.

Now that drilling is complete, scientists will continue to study the core samples and analyze other data they have collected. For his part, White hopes the NEEM project establishes a blueprint for future scientific collaborations.

"I hope that NEEM is a foretaste of the kind of cooperation we need for the future," White said, "because we all share the world."

(Photo: NEEM Project Office)

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