Science Roundup: Can Facebook make your brain bigger?

Science Roundup: Can Facebook make your brain bigger?

By Katie Wilson, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Oct. 27, 2011 at 2:30 p.m.



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From Facebook correlating to brain size, putting solar panels on Mt. Everest and more, here's the lo-down on several groundbreaking developments from all over science this week.

Facebook “friends” related to brain structure

Facebook, the popular social networking site, may affect our day-to-day lives more than we ever could have imagined. A study conducted by Geraint Rees of University College of London shows that the number of “friends” an individual has on Facebook correlates directly with their brain structure.

The study found a correlation between how many “friends” an individual had and the size of specific areas of the brain. The areas of the brain affected control things like social interaction, memory and one area is implicated in autism.

The regions of the brain that were studied seem to have an impact on the amount of “friends” an individual has on Facebook, as well as “real” friends in our lives. The question that remains unanswered is; does Facebook affect our brain structure or does our brain structure affect our Facebook profiles?

“The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time. This will help us answer the question of whether the Internet is changing our brains.” said Dr Ryota Kanai, researcher from University College London.

Though there is a correlation between the number of Facebook friends 
one has and the size of certain areas of the brain, it is unclear whether 
those areas led to more friends or vice versa.
Though there is a correlation between the number of Facebook friends one has and the size of certain areas of the brain, it is unclear whether those areas led to more friends or vice versa.

Professor Gerraint Rees, from UCL headed the research funded by the Wellcome Trust, said: “Online social networks are massively influential, yet we understand very little about the impact they have on our brains. This has led to a lot of unsupported speculation that the Internet is somehow bad for us.”

“Our study will help us begin to understand how our interactions with the world are mediated through social networks. This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the Internet and the brain – scientific questions, not political ones.”

Antiviral drugs used to slow the progression of Alzheimer's

The University of Manchester released their findings in December of 2008 that the virus responsible for cold sores is a major factor in the formation of protein plaques in the brain that leads to Alzheimer's disease, when present in an individual who has a genetic risk for developing the disease.

The Manchester team has found that the herpes virus (HSV1) causes an accumulation of two proteins that are the main components of the plaque that many scientists believe contributes to the development of Alzheimer's disease.

Their latest study, published this week, shows that antiviral drugs traditionally used to treat the herpes virus can be effective in slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease. In the study scientists used Acylov ir, a commonly used antiviral agent, along with two other antiviral medicines and found that the drugs did decrease the replication of the harmful proteins.

These agents are inexpensive and have almost no side effects, making them a viable treatment in patients who carry the herpes virus and the genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's disease. The drugs also seem to only target the virus cells, not effecting other host cells.

The next stage of research will focus on finding the most suitable antiviral agents or combinations thereof. Researchers will then study how the virus interacts with genetic risk factors to hopefully develop other methods in fighting the debilitating disease.

Professor Ruth Itzhaki, head of the University's Faculty of Life Sciences, said, “Eventually, we hope to begin clinical trials in humans but this is still some way off yet and again will require new funding.” The study, was carried out by Dr. Matthew Wozniak and other members of the Faculty of Life Sciences team, was published in the Public Science Library One Journal.

Covering Everest with solar panels

Hot dessert regions have long been thought of as the go-to location for setting up solar panels. A new study conducted by the American Chemical Society suggests that cold and high locations may have even more potential than their sunny counterparts.

The study asserts that high mountainous regions, such as the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, may be the ideal place for capturing solar energy, assuming that environmental constrains, such as snowfall, can be overcome.

A new study shows that high altitude areas like the Himalayas or 
everest may be more amenable to solar panels than arid areas like 
deserts, traditionally associated with the use of solar energy collection 
on a mass scale.
A new study shows that high altitude areas like the Himalayas or everest may be more amenable to solar panels than arid areas like deserts, traditionally associated with the use of solar energy collection on a mass scale.

The study, which appears in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology, also suggests that areas such as the Andes mountains and Antarctica could play a crucial role in establishing prime locations for setting up solar arrays.

Researchers utilized techniques that account for how temperature effects solar cell output to establish global solar energy potential. Additional studies will also take into account how factors such as weather, snowfall and transmission capabilities will effect the potential outcome.

The study notes that typically semi-arid and arid locations are considered the prime targets in establishing solar arrays, but suggests that many cold locations with high elevations also receive a large quantity of sunlight, enough that the potential for collecting solar energy may be more than some dessert locations.

Obesity and neighborhood

A new study suggests that our neighborhood may affect us more than we once thought, even affecting our weight. The study led by Jens Ludwig, a sociologist at the University of Chicago Law School looks at possible links between education, employment and neighborhood.

The data was collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) using 4,498 volunteers from 1994 to 1998. The volunteers were divided into three groups living in public housing throughout the nation. One group received rent vouchers for middle class neighborhoods, the second group received rent vouchers for neighborhoods where they already lived, while the third group received no rent vouchers and remained in the same areas they already resided.

Ludwig's ream discovered that the second group who received vouchers but did not move, experienced no change in weight or indications of diabetes. However, the people who moved to middle-class neighborhoods were 5% less likely to be obese and showed less diabetes indicators than their counterparts in the control group.

“These are pretty big effects,” says Ludwig “comparable in size to the long-term effects on diabetes we see from targeted lifestyle interventions or from providing people with medication that can prevent the onset of diabetes.”

The study which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, clearly shows that neighborhood effects the health of people. Though the causes, still remain unclear. Is it the people in a neighborhood that cause the difference? The amenities? Or something else entirely?

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Katie Wilson

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