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Raking It In

This week, we were delighted to discover that PLoS ONE had appeared in the New York Times for the sixth week in a row, with an article and part of a podcast on a paper by Iriki and colleagues who trained degus (a type of rodent) to manipulate a rake ("as smoothly and efficiently as croupiers in any Las Vegas casino,” according to the NYT), in their paper, Tool-Use Training in a Species of Rodent: The Emergence of an Optimal Motor Strategy and Functional Understanding.

The paper, published last week, was also covered by AFP (and was widely syndicated) and in the ScienceBlog Neurophilosophy (Rats can learn to use tools). The authors say these findings suggest that tool use is not a specific faculty resulting from higher intelligence but results from a combination of more general cognitive abilities; my hope, conversely, is that degus can be trained to cook the dinner as well as sweep the floor – they probably couldn’t do a worse job than me.

Another PLoS ONE paper published last week (Differences in Muscle Protein Synthesis and Anabolic Signaling in the Postabsorptive State and in Response to Food in 65–80 Year Old Men and Women by Michael Rennie) did rather well in the UK press, Rennie being based at the University of Nottingham. The study examined the decreasing ability of post-menopausal women to store protein as muscle, compared to men of the same age who do not undergo this change. The story was covered in the following publications (it’s nice to see the journal represented in women’s magazines, like Marie Claire, too!);

BBC News – A diet high in protein could help older women stay fit
The Daily Telegraph – Ageing women face uphill battle to keep fit

The Daily Mail – Why women find it tougher to keep in shape as they grow older

Marie Claire – Age old problem

MSN India – Wanna stay young at 50?

In a paper whose news coverage may have been helped by the stories about the riots in Tibet, Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson studied 16 long-term Buddhist meditators and found that the practice of meditation can improve the ability of meditators to concentrate and can help them to become more compassionate towards family and loved ones. The study participants were given the following instructions from Matthieu Ricard, an interpreter for the Dalai Lama:

“During the training session, the subject will think about someone he cares about, such as his parents, sibling or beloved, and will let his mind be invaded by a feeling of altruistic love (wishing well-being) or of compassion (wishing freedom from suffering) toward these persons. After some training the subject will generate such feeling toward all beings and without thinking specifically about someone. While in the scanner, the subject will try to generate this state of loving kindness and compassion.”

The two reviewers, Antonio Damasio (who described the paper as, “a well-executed study, on a rather off-beat topic”) and Perrine Ruby, were both impressed too and you can read their comments on the paper, which is entitled Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise.

Some of the news coverage of this paper included:

Scientific American – Meditate on This: You Can Learn to Be More Compassionate and the podcast, Learn to Be Kind
Newsweek – The Lotus and the Synapse
Live Science – How the Dalai Lama Keeps His Cool

CTV – Meditation can lead to greater compassion: study

The Age, Australia – Change of mind, change of heart

Channel 4 News (UK) – 'Meditation can make brains kinder'
The Times, South Africa – Everyone can learn to be compassionate — study

Another 33 papers were published in PLoS ONE on March 26th and a further 47 were published this week; as ever, these papers are all freely available online and can be discussed and rated online.

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