By Euan McKirdy, CNN
Get ready to update your nightmares.
The reason we sleep goes far beyond simply replenishing our energy levels every 12 hours - our brains actually change states when we sleep to clear away the toxic byproducts of neural activity left behind during the day.
Weirdly enough, the same process starts to occur in brains that are chronically sleep-deprived too - except it's kicked into hyperdrive. Researchers have found that persistently poor sleep causes the brain to clear a significant amount of neurons and synaptic connections, and recovering sleep might not be able to reverse the damage.
A team led by neuroscientist Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy has examined the mammalian brain's response to poor sleeping habits, and found a bizarre similarity between the well-rested and sleepless mice.
Like the cells elsewhere in your body, the neurons in your brain are being constantly refreshed by two different types of glial cell - support cells that are often called the glue of the nervous system.
The astrocytes' job is to prune unnecessary synapses (connections) in the brain to refresh and reshape its wiring.
We've known that this process occurs when we sleep to clear away the neurological wear and tear of the day, but now it appears that the same thing happens when we start to lose sleep.
But rather than being a good thing, the brain goes overboard with the clearing, and starts to harm itself instead.
Think of it like the garbage being cleared out while you're asleep, versus someone coming into your house after several sleepless nights and indiscriminately tossing out your television, fridge, and family dog.
"We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss," Bellesi told Andy Coghlan at New Scientist.
To figure this out, the researchers imaged the brains of four groups of mice:
When the researchers compared the activity of the astrocytes across the four groups, they identified it in 5.7 percent of the synapses in the well-rested mouse brains, and 7.3 of the spontaneously awake mouse brains.
In the sleep-deprived and chronically sleep-deprived mice, they noticed something different: the astrocytes had increased their activity to actually eating parts of the synapses like microglial cells eat waste - a process known as astrocytic phagocytosis.
In the sleep-deprived mouse brains, the astrocytes were found to be active across 8.4 percent of the synapses, and in the chronically sleep-deprived mice, a whopping 13.5 percent of their synapses showed astrocyte activity.
As Bellesi told New Scientist, most of the synapses that were getting eaten in the two groups of sleep-deprived mice were the largest ones, which tend to be the oldest and most heavily used - "like old pieces of furniture" - which is probably a good thing.
But when the team checked the activity of the microglial cells across the four groups, they found that it had also ramped up in the chronically sleep-deprived group.
"We find that astrocytic phagocytosis, mainly of presynaptic elements in large synapses, occurs after both acute and chronic sleep loss, but not after spontaneous wake, suggesting that it may promote the housekeeping and recycling of worn components of heavily used, strong synapses," the researchers report.
"By contrast, only chronic sleep loss activates microglia cells and promotes their phagocytic activity ... suggesting that extended sleep disruption may prime microglia and perhaps predispose the brain to other forms of insult."
Many questions remain, such as if this process is replicated in human brains, and if catching up on sleep can reverse the damage.
But the fact that Alzheimer's deaths have increased by an incredible 50 percent since 1999, together with the struggle that many of us have in getting a good night's sleep, means this is something we need to get to the bottom of - and fast.
The research has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
PARIS—Evolution works in mysterious ways, especially when it comes to sex.
Behold the humble and homely seed beetle, an insect that has successfully spread to every continent on the planet except Antarctica.
The male of the species, it has long been known, boasts an imposing sexual organ resembling a medieval, spike-studded ball mounted on a metal shaft.
“The penis is covered in hundreds of sharp spines which pierce the female reproductive tract during mating,” explained Liam Dougherty, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, and lead author of a study that asks a deceptively simple question: How do females cope?
The answer based on a decade of laboratory experiments spanning 100 seed beetle generations reveals a remarkable story of adaptation, and an evolutionary tit-for-tat that Dougherty likens to a “sexual ‘arms race.’”
“When males evolved to increase male harm, the females also evolved to reduce that harm,” and in more ways than one, Dougherty told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
To begin with, the female tract grew thicker across generations, “making the spines less able to pierce the tissue,” he explained.
Lady beetles confronted with ever more dangerous male gear also developed new immune responses, one giving them more protection against infection, and another allowing their damaged tissue to heal faster.
The findings, published on Wednesday in the British Royal Society journal Proceedings B, provide rare evidence of how “traumatic mating,” as it is sometimes called, can simultaneously drive adaptive mutations in both sexes.
But this fascinating evolutionary pas de deux still leaves begging a fundamental question: What is the raison d’etre of a male sex organ that reduces female life span and perhaps reproductive output?
What, in other words, would Darwin have to say?
Some biologists have suggested that the weaponized genitalia reduce the chances of females coupling with other males.
But female seed beetles do, in fact, mate with more than one partner.
More likely, according to Dougherty, is that spines on the male organ changed to increase the number of eggs fertilized compared to competitors.
In either case, “the female well-being is sacrificed at the expense of male fitness,” he added. “Traumatic mating has evolved because it increases male fertilization success.”
The scientists also speculated that deeper holes made by longer spines allow chemicals ejaculated by the male that influence female behavior, and make her more pliant, to more quickly find their way to the brain.
Seed beetles are not the only creatures prone to male-on-female pain sex.
The best known example is probably the bed bug. Its penis that looks like a hooked hypodermic needle pierces the females abdomen, injecting sperm directly into the body cavity.
Nor are females always on the receiving end. Several species of spider practice sexual cannibalism in which larger lady arachnids eat their mates but only after the deed is done.
For the seed beetle experiment, the insects were gathered from 13 locations around the world including Benin, Brazil, California, Nigeria, South India and Yemen. They were raised separately under identical laboratory conditions.
The scientists were thus able to show that changes across generations in each sex’s genitalia, which varied from population to population, were interdependent.
Many animal species display low levels of sexual conflict, but such behavior rarely leads to the full-on “arms race” escalation seen in seed beetles, Dougherty noted. —AFP
All of which is to say, the line between these two industries is blurring. Now more than ever, it feels like high-tech fashion is on the verge of being more than just a gimmick. In the not-too-distant future, you could even be 3D printing your own shoes or clothes at home. Instead of going to a store, you'll buy designs straight from the designer. And we're quickly heading toward a world in which "wearable" will be more than a fancy word for a smartphone accessory. Think about it: Your Apple Watch is basically a brick if you don't have an iPhone paired with it.
Three-dimensional printing has come a long way and is no longer just for prototyping. Sportswear giant Adidas, for example, is on the way to making 3D-printed shoes a consumer product as part of an effort known as Futurecraft, which began in 2015. Earlier this year, it teamed up with Silicon Valley startup Carbon 3D on a new manufacturing technique called digital light synthesis, which mixes light and oxygen with programmable liquid resins to create 3D objects in a matter of minutes. Adidas says this technology will allow it to 3D-print sneakers on a large scale; it's planning to ship 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018.
While 3D-printed shoes may at first sound like a gimmick, the reason Adidas is betting on the technology is its customization potential. Imagine being able to walk into a store, hop on a treadmill, have your foot measured to a T and get a pair made based on your results in less than 24 hours. This approach means the shoes would match your footprint elements, including contour details and precise pressure points -- which, in turn, could give you the most amount of comfort.
Sponsored athletes already benefit from this, because brands typically custom-make designs for them, but the idea is to expand the concept to every consumer. That's the future Adidas imagines, one that's also going to depend on the company's Speedfactory, a manufacturing facility staffed by robots that can make products at a rapid pace and in high volumes. It's an automated assembly line that's straight out of a sci-fi film.
Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic at The New York Times, says 3D printing will have a significant value for fashion companies down the road, especially if it transforms into a print-it-yourself tool for shoppers. "There's real sense that this is not going to happen anytime soon," she says, "but it will happen, and it will create dramatic change in how we think both about intellectual property and how things are in the supply chain." She adds: "Certainly some of the fabrications that brands can use will be dramatically changed by technology."
Nike, on the other hand, has been busy with self-lacing shoes. What started as a project inspired by nostalgia for the Mag -- a prop with power laces worn by Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in Back to the Future Part II -- has turned into something with larger implications. The HyperAdapt 1.0, which features a self-lacing system dubbed E.A.R.L. (Electro Adaptive Reactive Lacing), is essentially the consumer version of Nike's beloved Mag. The company says one of the reasons it created it is because athletes often complained about their shoes untying during workouts, and HyperAdapt solves that problem because it requires little to no effort when you're putting it on. It's a pricey solution, though -- each pair costs $720.
Still, just like high-definition TVs, they will in time go from being a luxury item to a run-of-the-mill commodity. While Nike isn't pitching HyperAdapt or E.A.R.L specifically to people with disabilities (particularly those unable to tie their own shoes), there's definitely potential there. Nike does have its Ease Challenge, a project that recruits outside designers and engineers to "advance and reinvent footwear design for athletes of all abilities." This year, Nike awarded $50,000 to the designer of a shoe with a heel counter that acts as a small door for your feet, removing the need to tie laces or use a shoehorn. The winner, Brett Drake, will work with the brand to create a prototype of the design and perhaps eventually bring it to market.
"This is the very first baby step toward having a truly adaptable shoe," Matt Powell, a sports-industry analyst at research firm NPD, says about Nike's E.A.R.L. technology. "It isn't just going to tighten or loosen laces; it could increase or decrease cushioning, it could ventilate or warm [the shoe]. This is a very, very small step in a long path of making footwear that is adjusting to our needs on the fly."
Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP), the group that handles the company's offbeat innovations (like the now-defunct Project Ara), has been rethinking the very materials clothes are made of. For the past couple of years, the tech giant has been experimenting with conductive fabrics that can make fashion garments smarter. With Project Jacquard, Google created a system for weaving technology that can turn clothes or any other textiles into gesture-controlled surfaces. Google hopes designers and developers will implement this tech in sensor-laden garments that can be used in everyday life, including jeans, T-shirts and jackets.
To show Project Jacquard's potential, Google teamed up with Levi's on a connected Commuter denim jacket that has 15 conductive threads on the left sleeve, each just visible enough for you to know where to touch to trigger certain actions. A Bluetooth cuff pairs the jacket to a smartphone, letting you brush your fingers on the smart fabric to check the time or swipe to play music, etc. And Google and Levi's could make the jacket more interactive.
Levi's and Google's Commuter jacket is slated to hit stores this fall for $350, and it's the first of many products the tech company hopes to see integrate with Jacquard. "We think about Jacquard as a raw material that will make computation a part of the language which apparel designers and textile designers and fashion designers speak," the company said when it introduced the tech at its I/O developers conference in 2015. "We want digital to be just the same thing as quality of yarn or colors used."
More often than not, technology and fashion seem to have trouble understanding each other -- remember that underwhelming tech-themed Met Gala in 2016? So perhaps collaborations like Levi's' and Google's are the way forward. And although it's unclear if the smart denim jacket will be a success ( it probably won't be), Google is already planning to work with more fashion labels on future Jacquard projects. Who wants some Gap Jacquard khakis?
Whatever it may be, Friedman says tech companies need to figure out a way to make their fashion products less dependent on smartphones. "Right now we're just saying, 'OK, here we have these devices that we all love which is our phones. How can we attach that to something else that we have?'" she says."I think the real question is: 'What doesn't the phone do? What is something completely new that our clothes could do?'"
Kate Sicchio, an assistant professor of integrated digital media at New York University, says the future could be a "more embedded" one, in which the clothes or accessories we wear have a better way of sensing our every move. She says part of the problem now is that the tech industry doesn't necessarily take the time to fully understand our bodies or movement, but she's hopeful that'll change. "Electronics sometimes aren't flexible enough or don't form to the body quite right," she says. "We can't change the shape of the body, but hopefully we can mold our tech to fit it better."
Sicchio adds that it's imperative to move away from the smartphone being the brains of the operation. "That will make a huge difference," she says. "If we look at the history of ubiquitous computing ... in the '90s, all these MIT researchers had backpacks full of laptops, and now we just have this little [rectangle] we keep in our pocket, and soon that's going to disappear and it just will be a small microcontroller in our garments."
The hope, Sicchio says, is that soon enough we'll have clothes that will be able to collect your health and fitness data without the need for an auxiliary device like a smartwatch, band or phone. "That's one of these things that smart fabrics are really good at, they can be on the body and read the body," says Sacchio "So far, all we've done is quantify and measure that rather than apply it. Tech people have to realize there are experts on bodies and movements out there that they should be listening to."
Still, you get the feeling technology companies are on the verge of a major breakthrough in fashion, and it's only a matter of time before we see products that are both useful and accessible to everyone. We have to remember that what may seem like a gimmick now could end up laying the ground for something bigger: What if Google's Jacquard jacket could one day measure your heart rate, along with letting you pick which song to play next? Or if Nike's self-lacing shoes could also track your step count? That future can' be far off.
"Breakthroughs are hard," says Friedman. "They only come every once in awhile, and it requires someone who can really think outside any existing boxes, and most of us are very embedded in our boxes." It's hard to see the future, but we can take a guess at what it will look like based on today's reality. What's clear is that technology and fashion companies must work together to make this vision more than just a sci-fi fantasy.
The blue whale has a body the length of a jet airliner, a heart the size of a car, and a tongue the same weight as an elephant.
Now researchers say they might have solved the mystery of why baleen whales – a group that includes these blue beasts, the largest animals on the planet – became so large.
Scientists say the shift towards sizes of more than 10 metres in length probably cropped up in baleen whales just 2m-3m years ago, and was driven by changes in the distribution of their food in the ocean.
“We think of [baleen whales] as being giants but if you consider this in the context of their 36m-year evolutionary history, they have only been giants for a 10th [of it],” said Graham Slater, an evolutionary biologist and co-author of the research from the University of Chicago.
Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal, Slater and colleagues reveal how they unpicked the driver behind the boom in size by exploring the lengths of 63 extinct baleen whales, as estimated from measurements of fossilised skulls, as well as the lengths of 13 living species.
The lengths, as well as the position of each species on the baleen whale family tree, were then fed into a series of computer models to examine how and when gigantism cropped up.
The results reveal gigantism emerged independently in several branches of the family tree, including the bowhead and the right whales. The team also found that it was not just that the largest whales became bigger over time – the smallest found today are also much larger than the smallest extinct species.
Further analysis revealed that although baleen whales had been gradually diversifying in size for 30m years, a step change began to take place between 4.5m and a few hundred thousand years ago.
The recent timing , the authors say, rules out the possibility that the emergence of gigantism was caused by the evolution of bulk filter feeding or large predators, such as giant sharks. They also rule out that the gigantism was a response to falling global ocean temperatures.
Instead, they say, it is probably down to systems driving cold, nutrient-rich water upwards in regions around the continental shelf, caused at least in part by the onset of glaciation in the northern hemisphere.
These systems emerged about 3m years ago and resulted in dense pockets of prey rather than an even spread. That, says Slater, drove the evolution of gigantism in baleen whales.
“The bigger your mouth, the more you can take in and the less energy it costs you to do it,” he said. Being large also helps when it comes to moving to the next pocket of prey.
“If you are big you can just store more energy – you have got a bigger fuel tank to get you where you want to go,” said Slater. “If you are big your cost of transport is also lower so you get more miles to the gallon.”
Olivier Lambert, a palaeontologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who was not involved in the study, said the research provided a convincing scenario for one of the last stages in the evolution of size among baleen whales.
However, he said it was likely that other factors, such as the evolution of large predators and other climatic events, could also have played a role in the development of the animals’ size, particularly earlier in their evolution.
But Lambert believes the latest research has implications for modern ecosystems. “Such a work further emphasises the precarious situation of today’s baleen whale populations, currently facing major threats considering the short-term effects of climate change on oceanic circulation and nutrient transport,” he said.
Slater agrees. “If we do shut down that cold water supply, if climate change does go the route we think it is going, it is going to spell real bad news for these big baleen whales,” he said.
Nicola Davis-The Guardian