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The Neuroscience of Things That Make You Go “Ew!”

Paul Sereno’s paper wasn’t – by any means – the only PLoS ONE paper published last week to have been covered by the press and by bloggers.

Reporting in PLoS ONE on August 13, Matt Finer, of Save America's Forests, and colleagues at Duke University and Land Is Life tracked hydrocarbon exploration projects across the western Amazon and generated a detailed map of oil and gas activities across the region, which, the researchers found, overlaps considerably with the latest biodiversity maps for amphibians, birds and mammals. Unlike the eastern Brazilian Amazon, the western region is still largely intact but large reserves of oil and gas lie below the landscape of the latter and growing global demand is leading to increased exploration and development in the region. There were news stories on the study in The Guardian, New Scientist and The Associated Press and it was blogged by Daily Kos, The Intersection and

Another study raising environmental issues – this one by Alex Pyron and colleagues at The City University of New York – outlined the potential effects of climate change on Burmese python populations in the United States. The PLoS ONE study found that, contrary to previous research, the pythons were unlikely to spread beyond the Floridian everglades in which they make their homes. The researchers used records on the distribution of pythons in their native range along with high resolution global climate databases to predict the potential extent of the python’s distribution in the U.S. and model the possible effects of global warming on the snakes. The results suggest that the pythons are restricted to the vicinity of the Everglades in extreme south Florida. The study was featured on Live Science and was also picked up on some of the wires.

As an ophidiophobic, reading Pyron’s article and some of the news stories (especially those with accompanying images) made me feel a little uneasy. In their article published in PLoS ONE last week, Mbemba Jabbi at the National Institutes of Mental Health, along with colleagues at the University Medical Center Groningen, shed some light on how reading a book or watching a film can invoke in us the same emotions as if we were experiencing the events ourselves. Focusing on the emotion of disgust, the researchers used an fMRI scanner to measure the participants’ brain activity while they: had drops of an unpleasant, bitter liquid placed on their tongue; watched a video of “disgusting” behaviour; and read a passage of disgusting text. They found that the same areas of the brain – the anterior insula and adjacent frontal operculum – were activated both when the participants tasted the liquid and when they watched the video and read the passage. The article was covered by New Scientist (although, note the disclaimer – “Warning: this story contains a paragraph of disgusting text” at the top of the story), Wired, PsychCentral and Discount Thoughts.

Finally, researchers led by Daniel Perez at the University of Maryland studied the H9N2 strain of the influenza virus, publishing their findings in a paper entitled, Replication and Transmission of H9N2 Influenza Viruses in Ferrets: Evaluation of Pandemic Potential. The scientists used ferrets (whose biology is very close to humans when it comes to flu) to characterise the mechanism of replication and transmission of recent avian H9N2 viruses and, according to the paper, the results suggest that, “the establishment and prevalence of H9N2 viruses in poultry pose a significant threat for humans.” There were news stories about the study in Reuters, AFP, Science News and Discover Magazine.

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