Up All Night to Get Lucky Proven Statistically

51d824aee8086The early bird may get the worm, but the night owl gets laid. At least, that’s the conclusion of Dario Maestripieri, a professor of comparative human development at the University of Chicago. And he has the statistics to back it up.

In a previous study, Maestripieri surveyed more than 500 graduate students from the University of Chicago Booth school of Business to assess financial risk aversion among male and female students. It showed that those prowling the night had higher levels of acceptable risk financially. It also asked about their sleep patterns and other behavioral tendencies.

He had all the info he needed right there, so why not run the numbers? Maybe those risk-taking tendencies extend beyond the financial realm?

“Night owls, both males and females, are more likely to be single or in short-term romantic relationships versus long-term relationships, when compared to early birds,” Maestripieri said. “In addition, male night owls reported twice as many sexual partners than male early birds.”

You hear that? Twice as many.

Maestripieri goes on to say that sleep tendencies can be influenced by genetic and hormonal characteristics, and that female night owls had higher levels of cortisol, which may be one of the biological mechanisms explaining the higher risk behavior.

Or it’s just common sense.

You know who is staying out late and partying all night? Drunk single people who are out for a good time. You know who’s not? People in committed relationships with a dog or a kid at home to take care of.

The study, “Night owl women are similar to men in their relationship orientation, risk-taking propensities, and cortisol levels: Implications for the adaptive significance and evolution of eveningness,” was published by Maestripieri in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

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How Can a Redwood Grow so Tall?

s3rkcpwnqfuwfvyk6h3nHow high can the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know. And you’ll never know why northern coastal California is so great for producing the tallest trees in the world.

It’s an interesting question when you think about it. The same species of tree can vary its height wildly depending on the conditions of its climate. Take, for example, eucalyptus trees in Victoria, Australia, which vary in height from 4 feet all the way up to 300.

There are many variables that affect how high a tree can grow. Some of it has to do with gravity and the work that has to be done to transport water hundreds of feet in the air. The rest comes down to resource allocation; is the tree spending its energy making roots to soak up more water or growing upward to soak in more sunlight?

You need three things for tall trees—fertile soil, a lot of rain and a humid atmosphere. In moist areas, trees can devote fewer resources to growing roots. And if the sun isn’t beating down and removing the moisture from the surfaces of the leaves, plants can open the stomata that exchange gases with the atmosphere and make more energy.

This is all well and good, but recently Thomas Givnish, a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin, wondered which factors were the most important.

“Since Galileo’s time,” Givnish says, “people have wondered what determines maximum tree height: ‘Where are the tallest trees, and why are they so tall?’ Our study talks about the kind of constraints that could limit maximum tree height, and how those constraints and maximum height vary with climate.”

To figure it out, Givnish looked at the ratios of carbon isotopes in the wood in an extremely moist environment of Australia. His thinking was that heavier carbon isotopes should accumulate in moister areas where faster photosynthesis can balance the costs of building higher into the sky.

And that’s exactly what they found.

This indicates that both fighting gravity and how much moisture can stick to a tree’s leaves govern the ultimate height of trees. In drier conditions, gravity stops the trees from moving upward. In moist conditions, it’s all about how long the moisture sits on the leaves.

Most studies of tree height have focused on finding the tallest trees and explaining why they live where they do, Givnish says. “This study was the first to ask, ‘How does the maximum tree height vary with the environment, and why?'”

The study, “Determinants of maximum tree height in Eucalyptus species along a rainfall gradient in Victoria, Australia,” was published in the journal Ecology by Givnish and colleagues Suen Chin Wong, Hilary Stuart-Williams, Meisha Holloway-Phillips and Graham D. Farquhar.

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Staying All Hyped-Up on Green Tea Helps Weight Loss

Green tea is good for you. I think just about everybody has heard that at one point or another. I’ve heard claims of boosting or prolonging active brain function, promoting heart health and helping keep the fat stores down, just for starters.

A new study from Penn State seems to back up that last claim of weight loss. Researchers handpicked a group of mice who seemed to enjoy using their running wheel more than their peers and used them for the study. Some of our Steve Prefontaines were ran a bunch on the wheel and nothing more, some of them were given decaffeinated green tea extract but denied their born free wheel excursions, and some were given the tea and allowed to run until their hearts’ content.

All were fed a diet high in fat, though I can’t access the journal article to figure out just how many calories they were taking in. Just because you eat a high-fat diet doesn’t mean you get fat, so long as you’re eating a reasonable number of calories. I’d be more wary of high-sugar diets, personally, but that’s neither here nor there.

The mice in the study got high-fat content food.

Those that took to the hamster wheel often and got the green tea extract showed marked improvements in all health indicators. What’s more, those benefits were clearly greater than either being on the tea extract or exercising alone. They reduced their body mass 27 percent and lost 36 percent of their belly flab. They also enjoyed a 17 percent reduction in fasting blood glucose level, a 65 percent decrease in plasma insulin level and reduction in insulin resistance of 65 percent—all substantial improvements related to diabetic health.

The study is interesting for several reasons. For one, the mice weren’t forced to exercise—instead they were chosen because they like to run naturally. In effect, the scientists removed one of the variables that would prevent the findings from translating to humans, since nobody is forced to exercise.

Two, the green tea extract was decaffeinated. So even if you’re averse to caffeine, this study can be applied to you. What’s more, caffeine is a natural metabolic booster, so caffeinated green tea should show even greater benefits.

Finally, the researchers gave the mice the human equivalent of 10 cups of tea per day.

Hold on. Say what now? Who the hell drinks 10 cups of tea per day? Maybe if you went out and found yourself some green tea extract to take as a supplement, I could see those levels. But can you imagine the costs incurred by drinking an entire Tazo box a day?

I for one would be all hyped up on green tea.

The study, “Voluntary exercise and green tea enhance the expression of genes related to energy utilization and attenuate metabolic syndrome in high fat fed mice,” was published by Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science at Penn State, along with PSU colleagues Sudathip Sae-tan and Connie Rogers.

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Cutting Calories to Add Years

Hey, you! Want to live longer? Put down that cheeseburger! And you’ll probably have to skip a meal every day too.

Eating less has been proven time and again to prolong the life of many organisms by as much as 40 percent. The only problem is that all of those organisms include species like yeast and worms; the shorter the lifespan, the easier it is to determine effects on aging and mortality rates.

But being as interested in living longer as our species typically is, there have been a couple of major studies looking to see if this general idea can be applied to primates. By a couple, I mean two: one by the National Institute on Aging and the other by the University of Wisconin.

In 2012, the former issued a report saying that caloric restriction didn’t have any effect on 120 monkeys participating in the study. You can pick up that cheeseburger again. Just a couple of months ago, however, the University of Wisconsin published results saying that cutting 30 percent of your caloric intake can reduce your risk of death by as much as three times.

Put that cheeseburger down again.

Why the contradictory results? As always, the answers are in the details. Richard Weindruch, one of the founders of the Wisconsin study, has a few theories.

For one, the Wisconsin study didn’t begin restricting the monkeys’ diets until well into their adulthood after their initial baseline for food consumption had been determined. In contrast, the NIA study started them off early without ever really getting an idea for how much they monkeys would eat left to their own devices. What’s more, the NIA kept all of their monkeys on a regulated diet, whereas the Wisconsin study let the control group eat however much they wanted.

Weindruch believes that, because of these two facts, all of the NIA monkeys were actually on a restricted calorie diet, some of them were just on a stricter one than the others. And because of this, they all reaped the benefits of eating less.

Supporting evidence includes the fact that at all points in the study, the NIA monkeys weighed less than Wisconsin’s. Even if the control group only had their diets restricted by 10 percent due to Big Brother’s control, maybe that’s enough to see the benefits? Plus, a handful of the NIA monkeys not on the “restricted” diet lived past 40 years of age.

“Heretofore, there was never a monkey that we are aware of that was reported to live beyond 40 years,” Weindruch says. “Hence, the conclusion that caloric restriction is ineffective in their study does not make sense to me and my colleagues.”

The dispute isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon, either. The Wisconsin study included 76 monkeys tracked over 25 years—quite the undertaking. Any volunteers out there to give it a mulligan?

And besides, cutting calories by 30 percent sounds like an awesome idea, until you realize just how much that is. Let’s say you’re currently taking in 2,000 calories a day—not a ton for a 190-pound man like myself. You’d have to drop to 1,400 calories a day, which is barely enough for three 600-calorie meals.

Personally, I’d never make it. I’m pretty sure I’d shrivel away and die. But you’re welcome to give it a shot if you want.

As for the researchers, they’re not suggesting anyone start cutting their calories significantly either. Instead, they’re more interested in trying to figure out what the biological mechanisms are behind the effect. Perhaps they could recreate the benefits with certain signaling drugs rather than having to actually cut calories?

Pick up that cheeseburger again.

The study, “Caloric restriction reduces age-related and all-cause mortality in rhesus monkeys,” was published in Nature Communications by Weindruch; Rozalyn Anderson, assistant professor of geriatrics; Ricki Colman, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Primate Center; and Mark Beasley and Sterling Johnson.

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Goldicancer and the Three Tissues

Once upon a time, there were three metastatic cancer cells looking for a new home. They floated and floated through their host body, each looking for a suitable place to build a new tumor.

The first landed on the heart—a strong, stiff, muscular tissue. It thought, “Oh dear, this is much too uncomfortable for me to build on.” So it went dormant and did not build its tumor.

The second landed on the surface of a femur—a long, strong, stiff bone. It thought, “Oh dear, this will never do. My surrounding are much too uncomfortable to build on.” So it went dormant and did not build a tumor.

The third tumor, however, landed on a lung—a nice, soft, squishy organ if there ever was one. “This is perfect,” it thought. “I shall build a giant, strong tumor to call my own.”

And it did.

Fairy tale? Yes. Complete fiction? No. At least, not according to new research from the University of Illinois.

Ning Wang, the Leonard C. and Mary Lou Hoeft Professor in Engineering and professor of mechanical science and engineering, led a team of researchers in a study looking at what characteristics determine whether or not a dormant but spreadable cancer cell develops into a new tissue.

Thanks to advances two years ago allowing the group to select tumor-repopulating cells from a culture, the researchers isolated such cells from melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer notorious for spreading and recurring. They grew these repopulating cancer cells on gels of different stiffnesses—as you might have guessed by now, some were soft and some were stiff to mimic different types of body tissues.

The cells placed in very soft gels grew and multiplied, as expected. The cells placed on stiffer gels did not proliferate—they  became dormant. When the researchers later transferred them to a soft gel, the cells “woke up” and began to multiply and spread.

Wang speculates that these properties of dormancy and reawakening when the mechanical environment is more inviting may explain why soft tissues, such as the brain or lungs, are most vulnerable to metastasis.

“We have many different types of organs where solid tumors originate, but if you look at the metastasized sites, the majority are in soft tissues,” said Wang. “Brain, lung, liver and bone marrow, all soft. So it may not be coincidence. We need to do more research.”

What’s impressive to me about this is the ability to grow and pluck out the cancer cells that become dormant—that’s a huge deal. There is a very low percentage of these types of cells in any given tumor, and figuring out what makes them different from their peers would be a huge step toward finding a way of stopping their spread.

I had no idea they could do that.

The paper, “Matrix softness regulates plasticity of tumor-repopulating cells via H3K9 demethylation and Sox2 expression,” was published in Nature Communications by Wang and no fewer than 23 coauthors—that’s an et al if I ever saw one.

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Ancient Hobbit Was a Genetic Anomaly, but Not in an Exciting Way

This figure compares the skull of LB1 to that of Liang Momer E, another skull from Flores, dated in the range of 3000 to 5000 years ago.

This figure compares the skull of LB1 to that of Liang Momer E, another skull from Flores, dated in the range of 3000 to 5000 years ago.

Ten years ago researchers announced the discovery of an ancient human that resembled Bilbo Baggins more than any modern human. Understandably dubbed the “Hobbit,” the remains were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores—a long, skinny parcel of land about halfway between Australia and Asia.

Two new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, are taking issue with the original findings. According to them, Bilbo was just an unlucky loser of the genetic lottery, not a fanciful new species of hominid.

Bilbo wasn’t a hobbit; Bilbo had Down syndrome.

A reanalysis of the skull and femur found in the cave—the only two useful bones found from the hobbit specimen—has revealed that the original projections of their size was a bit low. The brain was likely larger than originally deduced, putting it within range of modern humans afflicted with the genetic disorder.

What’s more, when you forecast likely height based on the femur’s length based on normal growth rather than an African pygmy population, as was  originally done, the proposed height comes out to just over four feet rather than a mere three and a half. And just over four feet is also well within the range of humans now living on Flores and in surrounding areas.

But the nail in the coffin might be the asymmetry of the discovered skull. The original study attributed these factors to the small but important nuance that it had been buried for tens of thousands of years. But the new study suggests perhaps that’s really the way the skull was—yet another common characteristic of Down syndrome.

Actually, I take that back. The nail in the coffin is that none of the other remains found along with the hobbit skeleton were hobbit-like at all.

“This work is not presented in the form of a fanciful story, but to test a hypothesis: Are the skeletons from Liang Bua cave sufficiently unusual to require invention of a new human species?” said Robert Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State, who was involved in the study. “Our reanalysis shows that they are not. The less strained explanation is a developmental disorder. Here the signs point rather clearly to Down syndrome, which occurs in more than one per thousand human births around the world.”

Yeah, I’d say it’s probably more likely that they found a rare case of Down syndrome remains—which affects one out of every 691 births in the United States—rather than a brand new hobbit species.

So sorry folks, but no unusual hobbit-like species here in this corner of the world.

I did, however, read another interesting hypothesis. Haven’t you Lord of the Rings fans out there always wondered why Gandalf didn’t just take the ring to Mount Doom on the back of an eagle? I mean, they basically save the day at the end of both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.

What if that was actually his plan all along? What if he was secretly pushing the Fellowship north toward the eagles’ home in the hopes of jumping on one of their backs? Was Gandalf really that fond of alliteration, or was his final words in Moria a suggestion of his intentions rather than a generalized order to get the hell out of there?

“Fly you fools.”

Then again, if an eagle could be summoned to Isengard with nothing but a whisper to a moth, you’d think that the eagles would be willing to come pick them up outside of Rivendell and spare the journey through the Misty Mountains. So instead, I’d like to amend the theory.

Perhaps Gandalf suddenly realized he had underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand? Or perhaps he thought that Frodo was incapable of making the journey without a wizard by his side? If it was a suggestion of flight, I think it would have had to have been a last second realization.

But what do I know? Either way, flying would have made for a pretty boring book.

The papers, “Evolved developmental homeostasis disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, denotes Down syndrome and not diagnostic traits of the invalid species Homo floresiensis,” and, “Rare events in earth history include the LB1 human skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a developmental singularity, not a unique taxon,” were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Eckhardt; Maciej Henneberg, professor of anatomy and pathology at the University of Adelaide; and Kenneth Hsü, a Chinese geologist and paleoclimatologist.

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Justice Driven by Reason, not Emotion

I’m a pretty logical person—almost too much so, most likely—especially when it comes to dealing with situations in which others are swayed more by emotions. For example, I have difficulty caring about providing prosthetics for dogs while human beings are starving or providing public funding for physically disabled individuals to be able to experience absolutely everything that a fully abled person has access to. Maybe people without legs don’t have to get to go skiing.

You would think that this trend would carry over into a general sense of justice. It seems like quite an emotional thing. People get worked up when life intervenes and deals a raw hand. Criminals should always be caught and punished appropriately for their crime.

I’ve always thought I was on the harsher side of the justice scale, thinking lots of jack asses in the world should get a solid punch in the face, for example. But it never seemed to jive with my logic circuits.

A new study out of the University of Chicago, however, might have something to say on the subject. After putting a couple dozen test subjects into an fMRI machine and having them watch video clips of injustices, a team of researchers found that people with high justice sensitivity are pushed by higher cognitive functions rather than emotional ones.

For example, participants saw a person put money in a beggar’s cup or kick the beggar’s cup away, and  were asked to rate how much they would blame or praise the actions. Surprisingly, people with high justice sensitivity showed more activity than average participants in parts of the brain associated with higher-order cognition. Brain areas commonly linked with emotional processing… not so much.

Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago and lead on the study, said the conclusions were clear. “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven. Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

Of course, clear is a relative concept. The study had a sample size of a whopping 40 people, likely all from the same city. It’s hard to say anything is for certain with that few of test subjects who aren’t likely to be very socioeconomically diverse, to say nothing of other cultures outside of the United States.

But still, it’s an interesting concept. Plus it strokes my own ego, so there’s always that.

The awesomely titled study, “The Good, the Bad, and the Just: Justice Sensitivity Predicts Neural Response during Moral Evaluation of Actions Performed by Others,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience by Decety and Keith Yoder.


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