The scientific case for happy lab rats, another big step for brain implants, and norovirus at the Olympics

Brain Implants Improve Memory

(New York Times, 2/6/17, Benedict Carey)

A year ago, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania and Thomas Jefferson University reported that timed electrical pulses from implanted electrodes could reliably aid recall. Now, in its first serious test run, scientists found that the technology noticeably boosted memory in real time, perhaps offering a promising new strategy to treat dementia, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions that damage memory. The system works like a pacemaker, sending electrical pulses to aid the brain when it is struggling to store new information, but remaining quiet when it senses that the brain is functioning well. The findings appeared this week, in Nature Communications. “It’s one thing to go back through your data, and find that the stimulation works. It’s another to have the program run on its own and watch it work in real time,” said Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior author of the new study. “Now that the technology is out of the box, all sorts of neuro-modulation algorithms could be used in this way.”

Are Happy Lab Animals Better for Science?

(Science, 2/7/18, David Grimm)

There is plenty of evidence pointing to the poor translatability of animal studies. Could one of the reasons be the super-controlled environments of the typical lab animal? For decades, lab animals such as rodents and fish have lived in barren enclosures: a small plastic box, few—if any—companions, and little else. Some scientists suggest that if we gave our research animals toys, companions, and opportunities to exercise and explore—the kind of life they might lead in the wild—it might benefit the animals and science. “We’re trying to control these animals so much, they’re no longer useful,” says Joseph Garner, a behavioral scientist who runs a program to improve the value and welfare of lab animals at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “If we want animals to tell us about stuff that’s going to happen in people, we need to treat them more like people.”

Norovirus and the Olympics, a Volatile Combo

(Wired Science, 2/7/18, Adam Rogers)

With the 2018 Olympics underway and close to 3,000 athletes competing, now is not the time for an outbreak of norovirus. The highly contagious gastro-intestinal bug has sickened 128 people and more than 1,000 people—primarily security workers—have been quarantined. While norovirus is rarely fatal, it spreads like wildfire among groups living in closely-confined quarters. This Wired Science article talks about how big events aid and abet the spread of the virus, and what epidemiologists have learned from past Olympics about how to curtail the spread of communicable diseases.

—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery