Don’t eat snow

Whoever didn’t roll out a tongue to catch a few snowflakes? Probably only those who never encountered snow.

The bad news is that snow, particularly urban snow is bad, really bad for you. The good news is that this was not always the case. So there is hope that in the far future it will be pristine again.

Nazarenko et al. (2016) constructed a very clever contraption that reminds me of NASA space exploration instruments. The authors refer to this by the humble name of ‘environmental chamber’, but is in fact a complex construction with different modules designed to measure out how car exhaust and snow interact (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 from Nazarenko et al. (2016, DOI: 10.1039/c5em00616c). Released under CC BY-NC 3.0.

After many experiments, researchers concluded that snow absorbs pollutants very effectively. Among the many kinds of organic compounds soaked by snow in just one hour after exposure to fume exhaust, there were the infamous BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes). The amounts of these chemicals in the snow were not at all negligible; to give you an example, the BTEX concentration increased from virtually 0 to 50 and up to 380 ug kg-1. The authors provide detailed measurements for all the 40+ compounds they have identified.

Needles to say, many these compounds are known carcinogenics. Snow absorbs them, alters their size distributions, and then it melts… Some of them may be released back in the air as they are volatile, some will go in the ground and rivers as polluted water. After this gloomy reality check, I’ll leave you with the words of the researchers:

“The accumulation and transfer of pollutants from exhaust – to snow – to meltwater need to be considered by regulators and policy makers as an important area of focus for mitigation with the aim to protect public health and the environment” (p. 197).


Reference: Nazarenko Y, Kurien U, Nepotchatykh O, Rangel-Alvarado RB, & Ariya PA. (Feb 2016). Role of snow and cold environment in the fate and effects of nanoparticles and select organic pollutants from gasoline engine exhaust. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts, 18(2):190-199. doi: 10.1039/c5em00616c. ARTICLE | FREE FULTEXT PDF 

By Neuronicus, 26 December 2016




Soccer and brain jiggling

There is no news or surprise that strong hits to the head produce transient or permanent brain damage. But how about mild hits produced by light objects like, say, a volley ball or soccer ball?

During a game of soccer, a player is allowed to touch the ball with any part of his/her body minus the hands. Therefore, hitting the ball with the head, a.k.a. soccer heading, is a legal move and goals marked through such a move are thought to be most spectacular by the refined connoisseur.

A year back, in 2015, the United States Soccer Federation forbade the heading of the ball by children 10 years old and younger after a class-action lawsuit against them. There has been some data that soccer players display loss of brain matter that is associated with cognitive impairment, but such studies were correlational in nature.

Now, Di Virgilio et al. (2016) conducted a study designed to explore the consequences of soccer heading in more detail. They recruited 19 young amateur soccer players, mostly male, who were instructed to perform 20 rotational headings as if responding to corner kicks in a game. The ball was delivered by a machine at a speed of approximately 38 kph. The mean force of impact for the group was 13.1 ± 1.9 g. Immediately after the heading session and at 24 h, 48 h and 2 weeks post-heading, the authors performed a series of tests, among which are a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) recording, a cognitive function assessment (by using the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery), and a postural control test.

Not being a TMS expert myself, I was wondering how do you record with a stimulator? TMS stimulates, it doesn’t measure anything. Or so I thought. The authors delivered brief  (1 ms) stimulating impulses to the brain area that controls the leg (primary motor cortex). Then they placed an electrode over the said muscle (rectus femoris or quadriceps femoris) and recorded how the muscle responded. Pretty neat. Moreover, the authors believe that they can make inferences about levels of inhibitory chemicals in the brain from the way the muscle responds. Namely, if the muscle is sluggish in responding to stimulation, then the brain released an inhibitory chemical, like GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), hence calling this process corticomotor inhibition. Personally, I find this GABA inference a bit of a leap of faith, but, like I said, I am not fully versed in TMS studies so it may be well documented. Whether or not GABA is responsible for the muscle sluggishness, one thing is well documented though: this sluggishness is the most consistent finding in concussions.

The subjects had impaired short term and long term memory functions immediately after the ball heading, but not 24 h or more later. Also transient was the corticomotor inhibition. In other words, soccer ball heading results in measurable changes in brain function. Changes for the worst.

Even if these changes are transient, there is no knowing (as of yet) what prolonged ball heading might do. There is ample evidence that successive concussions have devastating effects on the brain. Granted, soccer heading does not produce concussions, at least in this paper’s setting, but I cannot think that even sub-concussion intensity brain disruption can be good for you.

On a lighter note, although the title of the paper features the word “soccer”, the rest o the paper refers to the game as “football”. I’ll let you guess the authors’ nationality or at least the continent of provenance ;).


Reference: Di Virgilio TG, Hunter A, Wilson L, Stewart W, Goodall S, Howatson G, Donaldson DI, & Ietswaart M. (Nov 2016, Epub 23 Oct 2016). Evidence for Acute Electrophysiological and Cognitive Changes Following Routine Soccer Heading. EBioMedicine, 13:66-71. PMID: 27789273, DOI: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2016.10.029. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 20 December 2016

Scientists don’t know the risks & benefits of science

If you want to find out how bleach works or what keeps the airplanes in the air or why is the rainbow the same sequence of colors or if it’s dangerous to let your kid play with snails would you ask a scientist or your local priest?

The answer is very straightforward for most of the people. Just that for a portion of the people the straightforwardness is viewed by the other portion as corkscrewedness. Or rather just plain dumb.

Cacciatore et al. (2016) asked about 5 years ago 2806 American adults how much they trust the information provided by religious organizations, university scientists, industry scientists, and science/technology museums. They also asked them about their age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, income as well as about Facebook use, religiosity, ideology, and attention to science-y content.

Almost 40% of the sample described themselves as Evangelical Christians, one of the largest religious group in USA. These people said they trust more their religious organizations then scientists (regardless of who employs these scientists) to tell the truth about the risks and benefits of technologies and their applications.

The data yielded more information, like the fact that younger, richer, liberal, and white people tended to trust scientists more then their counterparts. Finally, Republicans were more likely to report a religious affiliation than Democrats.

I would have thought that everybody would prefer to take advice about science from a scientist. Wow, what am I saying, I just realized what I typed… Of course people are taking health advice from homeopaths all the time, from politicians rather than environment scientists, from alternative medicine quacks than from doctors, from no-college educated than geneticists. From this perspective then, the results of this study are not surprising, just very very sad… I just didn’t think that the gullible people can also be grouped by political affiliations. I though the affliction is attacking both sides of an ideological isle in a democratic manner.

Of course, this is a survey study, therefore a lot more work is needed to properly generalize these results, from expanding the survey sections (beyond the meager 1 or 2 questions per section) to validation and replication. Possibly, even addressing different aspects of science because, for instance, climate change is a much more touchy subject than, say, apoptosis. And replace or get rid of the “Scientists know best what is good for the public” item; seriously, I don’t know any scientist, including me, who would answer yes to that question. Nevertheless, the trend is, like I said, sad.


Reference:  Cacciatore MA, Browning N, Scheufele DA, Brossard D, Xenos MA, & Corley EA. (Epub ahead of print 25 Jul 2016). Opposing ends of the spectrum: Exploring trust in scientific and religious authorities. Public Understanding of Science. PMID: 27458117, DOI: 10.1177/0963662516661090. ARTICLE | NPR cover

By Neuronicus, 7 December 2016



The oldest known anatomically modern humans in Europe

A couple of days ago, on December 1st, was the National Day of Romania, a small country in the South-East of Europe. In its honor, I dug out a paper that shows that some of the earliest known modern humans in Europe were also… dug out there.

Trinkaus et al. (2003) investigated the mandible of an individual found in 2002 by a Romanian speological expedition in Peștera cu Oase (the Cave with Bones), one of the caves in the SouthWest of the country, not far from where Danube meets the Carpathians.

First the authors did a lot of very fine measurement of various aspects of the jaw, including the five teeth, and then compared them with those found in other early humans and Neanderthals. The morphological features place the Oase 1 individual as an early modern human with some Neanderthal features. The accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon (14C) direct dating makes him the oldest early modern human discovered to that date in Europe; he’s 34,000–36,000 year old. I’m assuming is a he for no particular reason; the paper doesn’t specify anywhere whether they know the jaw owner’s gender and age. A later paper (Fu et al., 2015) says Oase 1 is even older: 37,000–42,000-year-old.

After this paper it seemed to be a race to see what country can boast to have the oldest human remains on its territory. Italy and UK successfully reassessed their own previous findings thusly: UK has a human maxilla that was incorrectly dated in 1989 but new dating makes it 44,200–39,000 year old, carefully titling their paper “The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe” (Higham et al., 2011) while Italy’s remains that they thought for decades to be Neanderthal turned out to be 45,000-43,000 years old humans, making “the Cavallo human remains […] the oldest known European anatomically modern humans” (Benmazzi et al., 2011).

I wonder what prompted the sudden rush in reassessing the old untouched-for-decades fossils… Probably good old fashioned national pride. Fair enough. Surely it cannot have anything to do with the disdain publicly expressed by some Western Europe towards Eastern Europe, can it? Surely scientists are more open minded than some petty xenophobes, right?

Well, the above thought wouldn’t have even crossed my mind, nor would I have noticed that the Romanians’ discovery has been published in PNAS and the others in Nature, had it not been for the Fu et al. (2015) paper, also published in Nature. This paper does a genetic analysis of the Oase 1 individual and through some statistical inferences that I will not pretend to fully understand they arrive to two conclusions. First, Oase 1 had a “Neanderthal ancestor as recently as four to six generations back”. OK. Proof of interbreeding, nothing new here. But the second conclusion I will quote in full: “However, the Oase individual does not share more alleles with later Europeans than with East Asians, suggesting that the Oase population did not contribute substantially to later humans in Europe.”

Now you don’t need to know much about statistics or about basic logic either to know that from 1 (one) instance alone you cannot generalize to a whole population. That particular individual from the Oase population hasn’t contributed to later humans in Europe, NOT the entire population. Of course it is possible that that is the case, but you cannot scientifically draw that conclusion from one instance alone! This is in the abstract, so everybody can see this, but I got access to the whole paper, which I have read in the hopes against hope that maybe I’m missing something. Nope. The authors did not investigate any additional DNA and they reiterate that the Oase population did not contribute to modern-day Europeans. So it’s not a type-O. From the many questions that are crowding to get out like ‘How did it get past reviewers?’, ‘Why was it published in Nature (interesting paper, but not that interesting, we knew about interbreeding so what makes it so new and exciting)?’, the one that begs to be asked the most is: ‘Why would they say this, when stating the same thing about the Oase 1 individual instead about the Oase population wouldn’t have diminished their paper in any way?’ .

I must admit that I am getting a little paranoid in my older age. But with all the hate that seems to come out and about these days EVERYWHERE towards everything that is “not like me” and “I don’t want it to be like me”, one cannot but wonder… Who knows, maybe it is really just as simple as an overlooked mistake or some harmless national pride so all is good and life goes on, especially since the authors of all four papers discussed above are from various countries and institutions all across the Globe. Should that be the case, I offer my general apologies for suspecting darker motives behind these papers, but I’m not holding my breath.



1) Trinkaus E, Moldovan O, Milota S, Bîlgăr A, Sarcina L, Athreya S, Bailey SE, Rodrigo R, Mircea G, Higham T, Ramsey CB, & van der Plicht J. (30 Sep 2003, Epub 22 Sep 2003). An early modern human from the Peştera cu Oase, Romania. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U S A,  100(20):11231-11236. PMID: 14504393, PMCID: PMC208740, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2035108100. ARTICLE  | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

 2) Higham T, Compton T, Stringer C, Jacobi R, Shapiro B, Trinkaus E, Chandler B, Gröning F, Collins C, Hillson S, O’Higgins P, FitzGerald C, & Fagan M. (2 Nov 2011). The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature. 479(7374):521-4. PMID: 22048314, DOI: 10.1038/nature10484. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate

3) Benazzi S, Douka K, Fornai C, Bauer CC, Kullmer O, Svoboda J, Pap I, Mallegni F, Bayle P, Coquerelle M, Condemi S, Ronchitelli A, Harvati K, & Weber GW. (2 Nov 2011). Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Nature, 479(7374):525-8. PMID: 22048311, DOI: 10.1038/nature10617. ARTICLE | FULLTEXT PDF via ResearchGate

4) Fu Q, Hajdinjak M, Moldovan OT, Constantin S, Mallick S, Skoglund P, Patterson N, Rohland N, Lazaridis I, Nickel B, Viola B, Prüfer K, Meyer M, Kelso J, Reich D, & Pääbo S. (13 Aug 2015, Epub 22 Jun 2015). An early modern human from Romania with a recent Neanderthal ancestor. Nature. 524(7564):216-9. PMID: 26098372, PMCID: PMC4537386, DOI:10.1038/nature14558. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 3 December 2016