Study Identifies Gene Potentially Responsible for Human Language

A recent study in neuroscience suggests that a gene mutation which arose over half a million years ago could be the key to the unique ability that humans have to both produce and understand speech. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was conducted by Christiane Schreiweis, a former visiting graduate student at MIT and Ulrich Bornschein of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

What the researchers from MIT and the other European universities which took part in the study suggest is that the human version of a gene named FOXP2 facilitates transforming new experiences into routine procedures. When mice were engineered to express humanized FOXP2, they learned how to run a maze visibly faster than normal mice.

What the findings also show is that FOXP2 is potentially responsible for helping humans by influencing a key component used in learning languages. This component is the transformation of experiences (such as hearing the word ‘glass’ when being shown a glass of water) into a nearly automatic association of the word, with objects looking and functioning like glasses.  According to Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, member of MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study,

This really is an important brick in the wall saying that the form of the gene that allowed us to speak may have something to do with a special kind of learning, which takes us from having to make conscious associations in order to act to a nearly automatic-pilot way of acting based on the cues around us,’ the researcher declared.

It is known that all animal species communicate with each other, but only humans have the singular ability of generating and comprehending a proper language. FOXP2 is one of the numerous genes which scientists think might have contributed to the development of human linguistic skills. The FOXP2 gene was first identified in a group of family members (known as the KE family) who experienced severe difficulties in both speaking and understanding speech – they were found to carry a mutated version of this gene.

It was in 2009 when Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, engineered mice to express the human form of FOXP2, along with his team of researchers. The FOXP2 gene encodes a protein which is different from the mouse version by only two amino acids. The team found that the mice’s slender extensions in the striatum which neurons use to communicate with each other, called dendrites, were actually longer. (The striatum is a part of the brain which is responsible for habit formation). The mice were found to be better than humans at forming new synapses as well.

FOXP2 produces a protein that functions like a transcription factor, which means that it has the possibility to turn other genes on and off. The present study found that this gene appears to turn on genes involved in the regulation of synaptic connections in between neurons. Another finding of the research is that the dopamine activity in a part of the striatum involved in forming procedures is enhanced by the gene. Consequently, the neurons of stiatal regions could be turned off for longer periods in response to prolonged activation, known as long-term depression, which is allocated to learning new tasks and memory formation.

Svante Pääbo is an author of the new PNAS paper as well, while Enard and Graybiel are responsible for the striatum part of the study and the analysis of behavioral effects of replacing FOXP2. As mentioned earlier, the mice with humanized FOXP2 were better at learning to run a T-shaped maze, where mice have to make the decision to turn left or right at a T-shaped junction, based on the texture of the maze floor, in order to earn a food reward.

Collectively, the changes help with tuning the brain distinctly in order to adapt it to speech and language acquisition, according to the researchers. What they are investigating now is whether FOXP2 can interact with other genes to produce its effects on learning and language in other areas. According to Genevieve Konopka, assistand professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas.

‘The study provides new ways to think about the evolution of FOXP2 function in the brain. It suggests that human FOXP2 facilitates learning that has been conducive for the emergence of speech and language in humans. The observed differences in dopamine levels and long-term depression in a region-specific manner are also striking and begin to provide mechanistic details of how the molecular evolution of one gene might lead to alterations in behavior.

Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, The Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, The National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, the Fondation pour la Recherche Medicale and the Max Planck Society are the major organizations to have funded this research.




MIT Scientists Incept Mice With False Memories

Director Christopher Nolan’s (of Batman and Inception) fame has a distinct fascination for memory, a theme he frequently explores in his films. In 2000’s Memento, protagonist Leonard Shelby suffers from a real (but extremely rare) condition that disallows him from making new memories. He remembers his childhood and his past but exists solely in a short-term memory present tense that fades after a minute or two, only to be erased and replaced again and again. In the film his wife is brutally raped and murdered. Unable to experience the tempering effects of time and psychologically incapable of moving on, he lives with a constant and fevered desire to catch her killer.

He frequently burns possessions of her in an attempt to gain some sense of closure, but these memories he tries to create never stick. He dispiritedly utters one of my favorite lines of the film:

“I can’t remember to forget you.”

Recently scientists at MIT may have found a way to replace memories or to erase them altogether.

Publishing in Science, a team of researchers claim to have created false memories in mice. The team was able to condition mice to behave fearfully in an environment that was different than the one in which they had actually been exposed to electric shocks.  The study, performed by Steve Ramirez, Xu Liu, et. al., could fundamentally alter our understanding of the physical, neuronal aspects of memory function. The team also speculates that this research could be used to literally turn memories on or off, a revolutionary idea that many people likely find liberating and terrifying in equal measure.

To train the mice, the researchers first had to locate a specific memory in their brains. In this Ted Talk, Liu and Ramirez detail how they were able to identify the specific cells responsible for a memory. When a mouse was put into a new environment, its brain would light up with neuronal activity. Liu explains that when these cells are activated, they leave behind a “footprint” that makes it possible to track their activity and put a sort of neuronal bookmark on them. Using a technique called optogenetics, the team was able to install an artificial “switch” that lets them literally turn these brain cells on or off by shooting them with laser pulses.

To summarize the complicated and detailed experiment: Individual mice were put into a new environment, a blue box. The neurons responsible for creating the memory of the blue box were traced and made to activate in response to pulses of light. The mouse was then put into a different new environment, a red box. While in the red box, the researchers administered mild electric shocks to the mouse while activating the cells responsible for remembering the blue box. The mouse was, in effect, being reminded of the blue box while being shocked in the red box. Then, the mouse was put back into the blue box, where it fearfully responded as if that were the environment it was conditioned to fear, despite the fact that the mouse had no historical reason to be afraid of the blue box.


The scientists very literally Incepted a mouse with a false memory that made it afraid of an environment it had no reason to fear.

In addition to being able to turn a memory on, Liu and Ramirez maintain that they can also turn it off, and even believe it will be possible to customize and edit memories in the future. These alterations can be viewed as a controlled version of the way our minds naturally distort our recollections, which is one reason why eyewitness testimony is so fundamentally flawed—our brains are famously prone to misremembering. This groundbreaking technology could change one of the most important aspects of being human: the obviously profound relationship we all have with our past.

The possibility of erasing bad breakups or the sources of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to creating new versions of our old selves, can be both an invigorating horizon of opportunity as well as the introduction to an Orwellian nightmare, depending on both the individual involved and what memories are being tinkered with.

One of my fundamental beliefs is that every human being fully owns themselves and may do anything to their body they wish, with the important caveat that they alone are responsible for their actions. The idea of a third-party deleting or installing memories is of the utmost abhorrence. However, for better or for worse, I believe that individuals should be allowed to selectively modify their own past as they see fit, despite all the inherent troubles of getting the rest of the world to go along with the story you’ve created. (Imagine having to tell everyone to never bring up an ex before you get your memory of him/her erased…and how that totally wouldn’t work.)

I like to focus on this research as being a way for mankind to better understand memory and the neuronal processes in the brain. However, the idea of erasing or manipulating memories is interesting and does create a fundamental paradox. If I change my own recollections, my perception of the past that created my personality and worldview will have been altered by a person that I no longer fully recognize or accept as truly being “me.” The person who altered their memories would in a very real psychological sense no longer be the person that had the memories changed in the first place.

So who would you truly be? The Before or the After?

On a humorous note that I simply couldn’t pass up, writing about this story has brought up one of my favorite moments from Seinfeld. In the show, Jerry Seinfeld is dating a cop and is nervous about taking a lie detector test. Jerry asks George Costanza, the consummate and ubiquitous teller-of-fibs, for advice. George, absolutely deadpan, gives his counsel:

“It’s not a lie….if you believe it.”






3D? Lets go One More! 4D!

3D printing has of late become the hottest discussed news. With this new age printing method we can create guns, replicate handy tools, and even create stem cells to print organs. With 3D printing becoming more accessible and developed further, we of course now have to turn to the world of 4D, a world where things make themselves, without outside intervention!

The world of 4D printing is a world that is yet to be fully realized though research into it has already begun. Exciting new developments in this field will lead to more efficient explorations of the next frontier! Hints of a better lifestyle also  come promised as more is learned about this new self assembly system. This passive self assembly system could be the next step to developing AI and creating a new, always adapting system of thought.

Skylar Tibbits, from MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab says:

Imagine robotics-like behavior without the reliance on complex electro-mechanical devices!

Although it is still being developed, even in early stages, the potential for 4D “printing” is outstanding and very real. Shake a passive cube system and you get a desired structure! As Skylar mentions in the Ted talk:

Bridges, buildings, and structures can self assemble through previously programmed data.

A machine that creates itself based on data could be advantageous in war-like scenarios where a bridge for transports is needed. Set a self assembling robot to work if a base camp needs to be set up quickly while manpower is used more efficiently on scouting and gathering intelligence. It could even lead to the development of this guy…

He could be a bad-ass soldier and all, but why is this important to you and I? With all this advancement hopefully we will get to the point where our conveniences become that much greater with the use of these 4D inventions, that is, as long as our reliance on robotics doesn’t also increase exponentially in the process. As convenient as our lives can become through technology, I remain a firm believer and enthusiast of personal connections and interactions! Less is sometimes more… but until then…

The Singularity is Nigh Upon Us.


Sources for research:

Ted Talk by Skylar Tibbits

3D printing by Wondergressive

ABC 7: Guns and 3D Printing

CNET: Printing Organs

4D Printing

SJET: Self Assembly System

Wondergressive: The Singularity is Nigh Upon Us

Open Access Journals

Greetings Wonderguests!

I’ve spent a lot of time digging through the depths of second hand knowledge in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. Whenever I write one of these articles, I find that I run into the same problem over and over and over again. My facts are based on secondary sources. Why? Well as it turns out most primary source scientific information comes in the form of the scientific journal. If a knowledge seeker wants to read some journals of scientific merit they almost always have to shell out a heck of a lot of money to do so. Conversely, any writer who has access to a scientific journal can basically write whatever they want about said journal knowing that everybody will be looking to them for the “Facts.” Well, frankly, I have had enough.

And fortunately so has the internet. I introduce to you this list of Open Access Journals. Open Access Journals are exactly that. The majority of them are entirely free to read, review and sometimes even allow for permission-free mass production.

This website, Wondergressive, writes with passion in an effort to share knowledge in as unbiased a way as possible. Relying on websites that actively filter popular news effectively disallows us from doing so. While Open Access Journals have a lot of good, free, and earnest information to offer, “Closed Access Journals” publish a ridiculous amount of costly information with nothing in mind but the cash flow. The collective stream of intelligence is but a trivial side effect.

Many of you may remember having a session or two with your schools library research team as they excitedly tell you all the ways that you can seek information. I know I have. I didn’t understand why they were so excited until I came to the understanding that librarians have access to an intense amount of information. Catalogs upon catalogs of indexed information. Open Access Journals give us the chance to understand on our own terms.

Recently Aaron Swartz passed away. Aaron Swartz, co founder of Reddit and all around brilliant individual, fought a long and hard battle against online censorship. After years of legal battles relating to downloading a digital ton of academic journals, Aaron committed suicide. Before his death he fought hard for free and open information with the belief that knowledge should be for everybody.

So next time that you’re deeply involved in a research project, remember that you can get your information first hand from before it is filtered, misquoted, and watered down by the rest of the internet. Free information is a necessary tool in our quest to Be Always Growing.



What Does Light Look Like?

bullet apple 2

Throughout history humans have tried to understand how the world around us works. It’s what humans are good at. We really only have two semi-unique attributes that have helped make us as successful as we are: a brain to examine the world and opposable thumbs to manipulate it to our advantage.

We study phenomena closely, and devise better ways of observing them, so we can recognize patterns and use new information to our advantage. The simplest and perhaps most profound example of this in human history is the development and advancement of agriculture. Starting from literally nothing, as agriculture is a decidedly foreign concept to mammals, over many generations and thousands of years, humans pieced together the information necessary to create an abundance of food, capable of sustaining billions of people. What environment do certain crops grow best in, how to till the land, when to plant, when to harvest, how to store and cure. As soon as these questions had adequate answers we thrived as a species, spreading out from our native Africa to literally ever corner of the globe.

An amazing new tool has been discovered to help further our knowledge of the world: Femto-photography. It’s an imaging system that takes a trillion frames per second. Because of it, we can now visually observe light. Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT, demonstrates the remarkable abilities of this new technology in this Ted Talk.

light slo mo

Femto-photography. It’s an imaging system that takes a trillion frames per second. Because of it, we can now visually observe light.

In Raskar’s demonstration, he discusses ways of utilizing this new observational tool. On the more mundane side, femto-photography can be used to determine the ripeness of fruit based on the way light scatters through it. He also mentions a more practical (and military grant enticing) use: the ability to see around corners. But to me, the raw discovery is what fascinates me, rather than the current or future ways to productively utilize such technology.

Humans began to understand the world in concentric circles. First we understood our immediate environment. Then we spread our knowledge to the unseen. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes is said to have determined the circumference of the Earth with remarkable accuracy in the 3rd century BCE. Galileo and Copernicus helped us understand the Solar System. Einstein created the Theory of Relativity and described space-time. Innumerate others helped explain sub-atomic particles and quantum physics.

Now we have a way of looking at light itself.

I am thrilled for the future applications of this knowledge. I really am. But for right now, I think it’s important to simply sit back in our arm-chairs, let out a contented sigh, and take comfort in the ingenuity of humans. It’s inspiring and assuring to realize that the species can indeed, given time, accomplish anything if it puts its mind to it (to paraphrase Doc Brown).





MIT Discovers New State of Matter and Magnetism

I know we all learned in chemistry class that the basic building blocks of the ‘matter syndicate’ are solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, but it appears there’s a new player in town; his name is ‘quantum spin liquid.’

There are in fact many different states of matter that you’ve either never heard of, or didn’t realize was considered a different state of matter, ie. glass, or ferromagnets.

The specific quantum spin liquid that researchers at MIT have discovered is called herbertsmithite, named after, well, I’m sure you can figure that out. Quantum spin liquids, or QSLs, have a very strange type of magnetism.  Unlike the magnets you stick on your refrigerator, the electrons in a QSL don’t all align with the same orientation.  In fact, the internal magnetism of a QSL is constantly fluctuating.  Herbertsmithite is a solid crystal, but the magnetism is in constant motion like a liquid.   Despite the constant fluctuations of the magnetic orientation of the electrons in the QSL, there is a strong connection between all of the electrons, allowing this specific type of matter to have what it takes to be used in long rang quantum entanglement.

So what does that mean for us harebrained civvies?  According to Young Lee, the head researcher of the discovery, this means:

…advances in data storage or communications, perhaps using an exotic quantum phenomenon called long-range entanglement, in which two widely separated particles can instantaneously influence each other’s states. The findings could also bear on research into high-temperature superconductors, and could ultimately lead to new developments in that field.

Did I just hear instantaneous long range communication, infinite cloud storage, and flying cars?  Yes’m.

The truth is that this discovery will likely involve unimaginable implications.

Lee explains that:

We have to get a more comprehensive understanding of the big picture.  There is no theory that describes everything that we’re seeing.

In the last decade humanity has entered the wild, wild west of the quantum future. Herbertsmithite may very well be the trusted six shooter we’ve been waiting for.



Controlling Dreams and Implanting Memories


MIT researchers have successfully manipulated the dreams of rats using audio cues, leading scientists to believe we have entered the beginning of an age of “dream engineering.”

What do rats dream about anyway?  Running through mazes of course.  The researchers repeated the same audio cues while they were dreaming that rats heard at a certain point in the maze while they were awake. What they found was neural activity identical to the particular point in the waking life maze that they were trying to recreate in the dream.  Using a simple audio cue, they were able to control which part of the maze the rats dreamed of.

Even stranger, researchers are beginning to implant memories and produce artificial memory recall in mice.  They have located the neurons specifically responsible for memories, and manipulating these neurons, they can erase specific memories, or even create new ones!

While this could be a breakthrough for several types of psychotherapy, these studies are the stuff of paranoid nightmares.

Don’t be surprised if you wake up tomorrow and realize you’re actually a super agent from Mars, or a brain in a jar being tampered with in some distant future. Okay, fine, be surprised, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

MIT Separates Oil From Water Magnetically


Researchers at MIT have created a method of separating oil from water using magnets. By mixing water repellent, ferrous nano particles into the oil, they are able to separate the mixture from the water at a later time.

It is a simple method that can be used “on a larger scale and deployed at sea for days or weeks, where electrical power is scarce and maintenance facilities limited.”

Researchers did not mention possible negative effects that mixing in ferrous nano particles will have, if any, but I suppose for right now it is better than oceans full of oil.

Go science!

MIT Creates a Way To Separate Oil From Water Magnetically


how do we separate oil from birds? How do we separate oil from our wildlife?

Researchers at MIT have created a method to separate oil from water using magnets. This is of growing importance as oil spills occur more frequently around the world and the need to separate oil from our natural water rises. The method to separate oil from water created by MIT has great potential as the need for this maneuver rises in society. So how does it work? By mixing water repellent, ferrous nano particles into the oil, they are able to separate the mixture from the water at a later time.

It is a simple method that can be used

on a larger scale and deployed at sea for days or weeks, where electrical power is scarce and  maintenance facilities limited.

The use of this technology can reduce costs and increase effectiveness of clean up efforts. Let’s look at a couple reasons why it is important to separate oil from water in an oil spill situation. According to the New York Times in 2010,

As of Aug. 16, more than 7,000 birds, sea turtles and dolphins have been found dead or debilitated in the gulf since the oil spill began. A majority of the dead were not visibly oiled, and officials have yet to determine why they died. But they have confirmed that many more animals are dying than during the same time period in previous years.

It is not necessarily that the spilled oil killed the animals, but that the oil disrupted a delicate ecosystem in which the animals lived and the failure to quickly and effectively separate oil from the life giving water of their ecosystem was detrimental to their life and impaired their ability to survive. The U.S. Department of Commerce: Office of Response and Restoration talks about the detrimental effects of oil on marine life including both animals and plants.

Spilled oil can harm living things because its chemical constituents are poisonous. This can affect organisms both from internal exposure to oil through ingestion or inhalation and from external exposure through skin and eye irritation. Oil can also smother some small species of fish or invertebrates and coat feathers and fur, reducing birds’ and mammals’ ability to maintain their body temperatures.

The health of our ocean ecosystems  and bodies of water depend on action that is both quick and effective. This method of used to separate oil from ocean water could lead to a quick way to deal with one of society’s ever prevalent tragedies.

Researchers did not mention possible negative effects that mixing in ferrous nano particles will have, if any, but I suppose for right now it is better than oceans full of oil.

Go science!