Most common cells in the brain help us anticipate rewards

Cerebellar granule cells, which make up the cerebellum, are the smallest and most abundant of all neuron types in the brain. These cells are known to contribute to motor function, attention, language, and fear. A recent study published in Nature demonstrates that these cells may also contribute to our expectations of whether a given action will result in a positive reward. It’s a discovery that departs from our previous understanding of how these types of cells function.

To examine the function of these cerebellar granule cells, the authors used a mouse model of reward and reward anticipation. In this model, mice are trained to push a lever to receive a small treat of sugar-water.

When the authors looked directly at the electrical activity in the brains of these mice, they saw that some of these cerebellar granule neurons were activated throughout the lever-pushing task. The peak of neuronal activity coincided with the peak of physical activity for up to 20 percent of the cells. However, not all populations of cells fired during the same part of the lever-pushing task, so the researchers wanted to learn more about the neuronal differences among these subpopulations of cells.

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This blue-sky image of Pluto is absolutely stunning

Even though all of the New Horizons spacecraft data taken during its 2015 flyby of Pluto has been downloaded to Earth for months, scientists are still piecing it all together. Now two scientists, Tod Lauer and Alex Parker, have processed some of the New Horizons data to produce a stunning look back at the dwarf planet.

This departure shot was constructed from a mosaic of six black-and-white images captured by New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager as the spacecraft moved away from Pluto. Color has been added from a lower resolution Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera. At the time the pictures were taken, New Horizons was only about 200,000km away from Pluto, or about 3.5 hours after the closest approach on July 14, 2015. The resolution of the images stitched together is about 1km per pixel.

In this composite photo, Pluto is illuminated from behind by the Sun, almost as if the world is producing an annular eclipse for New Horizons. The image showcases a beautiful blue “haze” which, according to planetary scientists, is smog produced by sunlight interacting with methane and other molecules in Pluto’s atmosphere. These larger molecules scatter blue sunlight.

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The North Atlantic may get is first-ever named storm in March next week

Just one hurricane has ever formed in the northern Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, or the Gulf of Mexico in the month of March—a time when the oceans are still cold from the winter months in the northern hemisphere. This occurred in 1908 with an unnamed hurricane that, according to the Atlantic Hurricane database, reached sustained winds of 100mph and caused damage in the Caribbean islands.

As the 1908 cyclone formed long before the National Hurricane Center existed, there has never been a “named” storm in March. That could change next week, as an area of low pressure may develop several hundred miles to the east of Florida, in the Atlantic Ocean. This storm system is unlikely to be a major threat to landmasses, with the possible exception of Bermuda. Due to the rarity of March cyclones, however, it would garner significant attention.

Any cyclone that forms next week would almost certainly be classified as a “subtropical storm” (the Miami-based National Hurricane Center began naming subtropical storms, in addition to tropical storms, in 2002). It would originate from a mass of cold air that recently moved off of the United States, eastward, into the subtropical area of the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike “tropical” storms, subtropical storms have cold air at their centers and generate energy from the interaction of cold and warm air masses. (By contrast, a tropical cyclone derives energy from latent heat, as water vapor evaporates from the ocean’s surface and condenses into liquid water).

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German coal mine may be prime for pumped storage

In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a coal mine will close in 2018. Aging coal infrastructure, low wholesale power prices, and a move away from the highly polluting power source all make renewable energy the political darling of the day.

But that doesn’t mean the Prosper-Haniel coal mine will be shutting down completely. According to Bloomberg, North Rhine-Westphalia State Governor Hannelore Kraft recently confirmed that a project to turn the coal mine into pumped storage will move forward after mining activities have stopped.

Pumped storage has been used for decades, but placing a pumped storage scheme at a retired mine is somewhat new. Here’s how it works: when electricity is plentiful and cheap—say, on a windy day when the Sun is shining and solar panels and wind turbines are working at their maximum—a pumped storage facility pumps water from a lower reservoir up to an upper reservoir. When electricity is scarce, the facility can release the water back down to the lower reservoir through a turbine, creating renewable hydroelectric power.

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Analysis of meta-analyses identifies where sciences’ real problems lie

Science is in a phase of pretty intense soul-searching. Over the past few years, systemic problems that lead to unreliable scientific results have become more and more obvious. There’s a litany of woes for good science: publication bias leads to buried data, single studies don’t stand well on their own yet not enough people are replicating them, and flaws in the peer-review process are showing. And that’s before we even get to the (hopefully occasional) research fraud.

John Ioannidis, one of the heroes of the science-scrutinizing movement, has some news in PNAS this week that is simultaneously uncomfortable and comforting. Ioannidis, along with colleagues Daniele Fanelli and Rodrigo Costas, scoured thousands of scientific papers to uncover some of the most common causes of bias. Their findings suggest that, for the most part, people are worrying about the right things, including small studies that spark a lot of scientific conversation. But they also pinpoint other causes for concern that haven’t attracted much attention so far: early career researchers and isolated scientists.

Data about data about data

Fanelli is a meta-researcher: a scientist whose research is itself about scientific research. In order to get a broad view of the biases at play across all of science, he went hunting for meta-analyses. These are scientific studies that combine the data from a range of separate studies in the same area. Meta-analyses often give a more comprehensive picture of the current evidence than any individual study.

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Low levels of simple chemical associated with aging, DNA damage

Approximately ten thousand times each day, the DNA in our cells receives some damage, but most of that damage is repaired by our cells’ built-in DNA repair systems. The efficiency of these DNA repair systems decline with age, however, and that’s thought to lead to age-related health problems and cancer.

A recent paper published in Science shows that a chemical used in the DNA repair process, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), has a concentration that declines with age. This decline may drive the age-associated accumulation of DNA damage—a finding that suggests supplementing NAD+ might offset some of the effects of aging.

The team behind the paper used human embryonic kidney cells (which grow well in the lab) to look at the role of this chemical. The authors found that NAD+ binds to the protein “deleted in breast cancer 1” (DBC1), which—as its name implies—was previously implicated in cancer. DBC1 normally binds to and inhibits another protein that performs DNA repair. But NAD+ blocks this interaction, releasing the inhibition on DNA repair.

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Theranos investors who pledge not to sue get Elizabeth Holmes’ shares for free

Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes is planning to give up some of her personal shares to investors who pledge not to sue the disgraced blood-testing company, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The deals would only involve investors from the last round of funding, which ended in 2015 and brought in more than $600 million. These investors include the family of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the family behind Walmart stores, and John Elkann, who controls Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Investors could get about two free shares of the company for every share they bought.

The deals would also mean that Holmes could lose her majority stake in Theranos.

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In settlement, app makers change their tune on health benefits and privacy

Makers of three popular health apps are changing their tune about the capabilities and privacy policies of their products following an investigation and settlement with the New York Attorney General’s office.

The makers of Cardiio, Runtastic, and My Baby’s Beat apps all agreed to pay a combined total of $30,000 in fines while changing their advertising claims and privacy policy disclosures, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Thursday. A year-long investigation by his office found that the three made health claims that were not backed up by data or FDA-approval. They also found that the app makers weren’t forthright about how identifying information from users could be shared with third parties.

“Mobile health apps can benefit consumers if they function as advertised, do not make misleading claims, and protect sensitive user information,” Schneiderman said in a press release. “However, my office will not hesitate to take action against developers that disseminate unfounded information that is both deceptive and potentially harmful to everyday consumers.”

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