2014 has kicked off with a brand new weekly radio feature every Sunday on XfM dubbed “Geek Chic” (#geekchic). Birdy, as the delectable presenter of the Sat 4-7pm and 4-8pm slots is affectionately known, has been marshalling the XfM (UK 104.9FM) afternoon/early evening airwaves every weekend for the last few years and, it transpires, is a bit of a closet science geek. She kindly invited me to join her in the studio every Sunday afternoon to discuss the week’s most fascinating/quirkiest scientific discoveries.
For me it’s an opportunity to extend my remit beyond the wonderful world of human brain research into other realms of science. So far we’ve had caterpillars that eat tobacco leaves in order for their fag breath to keep their natural predators (wolf spiders) at bay, Argentinian eco warriors harnessing cow burp energy and a festival friendly gadget that can be fitted to a camping stove that enables you to charge your phone whilst boiling water for a hot drink.
On the brain side of things we’ve had people pitting their emotion generating powers against each other to blow up balloons in the Emotion Arcade. The aim is to generate a given emotion as powerfully as possible. Competitors scalps are wired up with EEG to measure the strength of the emotional state, which is then translated into an air pressure value that governs the amount of air forced into a pair of balloons. First person to pop their balloon wins!
We’ve also covered the discovery that a conventional mood stabilising drug appears to have the tantalising side effect of boosting neuroplasticity back to a level long thought to be impossible beyond the age of 7. Valproate is an anticonvulsant typically used to treat conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and migraine to name but a few. A recent experiment demonstrated that adults treated with valproate, but not those treated with placebo (a pill containing no active ingredients) could learn perfect pitch – the ability to name the specific sound frequency of a musical tone. Previously it was thought that if a person had not acquired perfect pitch during childhood then it would be impossible to acquire in adulthood. This is because the “critical period” has passed, a time when areas of the brain involved in musical were particularly malleable in the years leading up to our 7th birthday. Valproate is an inhibitor of an enzyme called histone deacetylase which, when not blocked by valproate, makes it harder to switch genes on and off – a critical aspect of neuroplasticity. The theory is that by blocking this enzyme with valproate during perfect pitch training, genes can be switched on and off more easily, allowing the relevant neuronal networks to re-wire with the level of super-malleability required for the ability to accurately identify musical pitch to be acquired.
Last week we talked about the relevance of new brain imaging research investigating the impact of the drug Ecstasy (MDMA) on the brains of healthy volunteers in light of it’s potential for use in helping people with Post-Traumatic Brain Disorder benefit fully from psychotherapy. And away from the brain front we described research accompanying the reintroduction of the northern bald ibis into the natural habitat from which it had become extinct that enabled scientists to explain why flocks of birds give us the V – that is fly in beautiful V-shaped formations. It turns out that whilst cyclists line up in a straight line to benefit from the drag of the bike in front, this is a bad idea if you’re a bird because you get caught up in the down draft from the bird in front. To benefit from the upwash created by the tip of the wing of the bird in front you need to be behind and to the side, making flying easier (as evidenced by a decreased heart rate when flying in V-formation). They even time their wing beats to optimise this process! Clever birds…
As the first three weeks of the Geek Chic feature seem to have gone down very well, I’ll be back in the Xfm studios every Sunday for the foreseeable future. So make sure you tune in to Birdy’s show on 104.7fm from 4pm to catch the latest and greatest science breakthroughs of the week.