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Crazy for “Catnip” March 14, 2011

Posted by mhostetler099 in Behavior, Biology, Chemistry, Fun, Health, Uncategorized.
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“Catnip,” a feline favorite, is a perennial herb in the mint family

Nepeta cataria, more commonly known as “Catnip” is a perennial herb that belongs to the mint family.  This herb packs a powerful punch to cats by provoking a state of euphoria usually lasting several minutes (video).   Many times herbs are utilized for medicinal purposes , but “catnip” obviously doesn’t affect human beings in the same way that it does cats.  What is it about “catnip” that provokes a euphoric response in cats but not in human beings?

The chemical component responsible for the effects of catnip

Studies suggests that the chemical nepetalactone found in “catnip” is primarily responsible for triggering the response in cats.  Nepetalactone evokes a psychosexual response in both male and female cats by mimicking a sex pheromone found in cat urine.

Bugs aren’t so crazy for “catnip”

The chemical nepetalactone may attract felines, but does quite the opposite to some insects.  Researchers at Iowa State University found that the chemical nepetalactone is a successful repellent of mosquitoes, flies, and cockroaches.  Particularly, the research team at Iowa State found that a solution of catnip extract is comparable in effectiveness to a ten times more concentrated solution of DEET.  Research in finding alternatives to repellents or pesticides, such as DEET, is very important because chemicals contained in most pesticides pose a serious threat to human health and the environment.  Unfortunately, the essential oils in “catnip” are extremely volatile and have a potent, but short lived repelling effect.  Further research in reducing its volatility is essential before such repellents can be used by the general public.

Catnip’s properties are multifunctional

Interestingly, researchers at the Max-Planck Society found that birds that used different types herbal plants in their nests produced offspring that were less prone to infestation of mites.  This study indicates that other herbs may have the same insect-repelling power as “catnip” and that organisms other than humans are using this characteristic to their benefit.


In the future, the active ingredient, nepetalactone, may be found in the bottle of repellent you spray on yourself or the pesticide you sprinkle on your plants.  You can be sure that the product you are using is much safer than the products of old, but if you have cats you must beware!  Such products will still provoke the same euphoric response caused by “catnip” sold in pet stores.


Cramming: A Student’s Best Friend? March 4, 2011

Posted by ljsteele in Behavior, Biology, Chemistry, Health, Medicine, Science & Culture, Uncategorized.
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The night flies by…

As a senior undergraduate student, slowly over the past four years I have realized the importance of cramming before a test. Simply put, by this stage in my academic career, it has become routine to stay up all night before a test to study.  In classes where there are multiple choice tests, it appears to be easier to stay up all night cramming, as is the belief that if you at least can recognize the question, ruling out the different choices for the answer becomes quite simple.  It has been shown that over a third of students cram the night before a test.

Equal Justice?

However, although many students utilize the practice of cramming, whether or not it helps students is up for debate. There are different levels of cramming, and each appear to cause different results when it comes to grades and GPA.  The issue that is starting to be seen is that although cramming may help in terms of short term memory, the retention of that information weeks after the course ends seems to be up in the air.  Of course, when cramming is being utilized, it only makes sense that the information storage would be contained in the frontal lobe of the brain, while long term memory, which would be associated with studying that has taken place over numerous days or weeks, would be stored over multiple parts of the brain.

Green highlighted area represents the frontal lobe of the brain

Many different universities have brought to light the health implications that one may bring upon him or herself when cramming. But, it is also shown that certain periods of acute stress are positive for the human body, which cramming would appear to fall under the category of acute stress. During acute stress, the body increases its fight or flight response (epinephrine and norepinephrine), shuts down digestion, reproductive systems, and boosts metabolism. Vasoconstriction and vasodilation also take place, therefore pumping blood into certain areas of the body and brain that during a normal day’s activities may not get stimulated very often.  Especially during the fight or flight response, one becomes more attentive, which would seem to help with say, studying for a huge test.

Are there more effects than just retaining information?

Although cramming may not be ideal for certain people, research needs to continue in terms of stress and cramming, and even learning styles.  Certain people are exposed to more stress than others, so possibly stress levels are compromised, leading to a decreased ability to study and cram the night before a test.  Students continue to cram because results are obtained on tests and finals.  Quite possibly cramming could do more than just get a student a good grade on a test-it could also help to train the body for different stress activities that otherwise may not be achieved.


The Science of Satiation October 16, 2010

Posted by Kyle in Behavior, Biology, Chemistry, Health, Nutrition, Uncategorized.
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Slow down or you’ll get a stomach ache!

My parents always told me that if I eat my food really fast, I may feel sick later. I am sure most people have experienced this at least once in their life. It seems that the reason for this is…that the faster you eat, the faster your stomach fills up. Your stomach ends up being full, or over-filled, before your body realizes it. By the time you do feel full, it is too late to stop eating and your stomach may feel like it’s going to explode.

It’s bad enough that your favorite meal can cause you pain after you devour it, but that’s not all it will do. Common sense should tell you that eating too much of something can potentially lead to being overweight. So if you’re eating too fast you can end up doing just that, gaining a lot of weight. An article from the British Medical Journal points out that eating too fast triples the risk of being overweight. Makes perfect sense…more food in equals more pounds put on.  But  the next question remains: what are the mechanisms behind all of this?

The science of satiation

An article out of The Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) points out that gut hormones my play a part in why people who eat fast end up overeating. As Alexander Kokkinos, MD, PhD, of Laiko General Hospital in Athens, Greece points out, gut hormones that signal the brain to stop eating may be impacted by the rate of eating.  The hormones that Kokkinos article examined were peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1) which work to signal to us that we are full after a meal. For the study, the researchers took blood samples from participants after they had all eaten the same meal, however, the amount of time each participant took to eat the meal varied.  Their results showed that the participants who took longer periods of time to eat the meal had higher levels of the gut hormones and felt more full than those who ate their meals faster. So what does this all mean?

Fast food

Your body tries its best to tell you stop eating, but if you don’t get the signal in time it doesn’t matter.  As many Americans go about their day, they consume a massive amount of calories for very little cost. Going through the drive through doesn’t burn nearly as many calories as chasing down a woolly mammoth. Our early ancestors couldn’t go through the drive through for dinner, they had to work for their meal. Not only that, they probably didn’t eat nearly as much as we do today.  Consuming a ton of calories and burning very few  makes someone more likely to be overweight, but if you add in the fact that some people are consuming their meals in only a few minutes and eating large portions, these people are at a much higher risk of gaining weight. So next time you sit down for a meal, try and eat slowly. This will give your gut time to tell your brain that it’s time to quit eating.  Your gut will be happy, and you may just lose a few pounds in the long run.

More art & science May 13, 2010

Posted by Dr. O in Uncategorized.
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A previous post of mine explored how science influences art and vice versa.  Here is another great link exploring that intersection.

Darwinian design: natural selection of telephone color

Helen Storey, a fashion designer, and her sister, Kate Storey, a developmental biologist team up to offer a science-inspired collection. This is the heart tube formation hat.

Spill baby, spill! What the heck happened? May 13, 2010

Posted by Dr. O in Uncategorized.
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The oil in the Gulf continues to spew out into the environment at a horrific rate….and it has started to come ashore meaning the delicate shallow-watered ecosystems nearest the coast are threatened.

Amidst the coverage of the ecological disaster, we are still left with questions:

Check out a discussion of this topic, the future of offshore drilling, on the Diane Rehm show.  Guests include:

Check out the videos below which show the underwater spill and some of the current options for dealing with the leaks.

A few examples of the pros and cons of exercise May 2, 2010

Posted by Kyle in Uncategorized.
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If finals have you stressed out and feeling down, maybe you should try a little “green exercise.” According to Jules Pretty and Jo Barton, green exercise is any physical activity done in nature. In their study, the results show that just a small amount of time outdoors is a plus for mental health and sense of well being. Something as simple as taking a walk in the Eco Lab could boost your confidence after a few long hours of studying.  The best part is the evidence shows that optimum benefits are achieved after just five minutes of activity. So whether you like to run, walk, or ride, you don’t have to spend much time doing it to feel better. This is great news for people who don’t really have a lot of spare time, like a student studying for finals. The study included over 1,200 individuals, and the activities they participated in included walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming.  So for those who don’t like to do much physical activity, you can just sit on a boat all day fishing and feel a whole lot better about yourself after.

Most people who exercise regularly already know that there are not only physical benefits but mental benefits as well.  There have been multiple studies that have shown regular exercise can help individuals with arthritis, diabetes, and even cancer.  Another recent study has shown that regular exercise can help relieve anxiety.  So if you are feeling anxious or depressed, a quick jog could help make you feel better. Most participants in the study felt less symptoms such as worry, apprehension, and nervousness.  Exercising for more than thirty minutes was best at reducing anxiety.  While exercise seems to be great for your body and mind, over exercising can also be a bad thing.

For the same reasons that exercise can help make you feel better, it can also become addicting.  Researchers believe that because exercise induces the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins, it can become an addiction.  Excessive exercising can lead to unhealthy weight loss along with other issues.  In one study, researchers used two groups of rats, one active and one inactive group, to test their hypothesis.  After several weeks the rats were given naloxone, a medication for heroin overdose that causes immediate withdrawal symptoms. They found that the rats that ran the most had the worst reactions to the drug, while the inactive rats had very little response.  This study shows that while exercise is important to a healthy lifestyle, overdoing it can have potentially dangerous consequences.

A copy of a copy is never as good as the original April 26, 2010

Posted by Dr. O in Behavior, Biology, Genetics, Health, Physiology, Uncategorized.
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Our final discussion in Molecular Genetics (BIO 415) we finished up chapter 8 of Miesfeld’s, Applied Molecular Genetics, text. We explored the nitty-gritty details of cloning the first mammal, the sheep called “Dolly” as well as “Polly” and “Molly”…the transgenic cloned sheep.

Dolly, the first animal cloned from an adult cell

We also explored the limitations of cloning.  You see a copy of a copy of a copy is never as good as the original, and this holds true for DNA too.  Enter the function of telomeres and telomerase.  Each time DNA is replicated, you need a spot for the machinery of replication to attach to.  That space it attaches to can’t be replicated and it is lost so we’ve developed these stretches of sequence called telomeres which are non-coding regions of sequence that the replication machinery can sit down and attach to in order to begin replication on those coding regions that are so important for our proper existence.

Telomeres vary in size depending on age

So what I’m getting at here is that Dolly didn’t live as long as other naturally born sheep.  Even though she was a baby…her stock of DNA was older. You see during natural fertilization…you’ve got a lot of processes going on to ensure your telomeres are all in lengthy order…but Dolly started with an older aged stretch of DNA…telomeres had already been destroyed snippet by snippet over the years in her precursor’s cells.  She was old before she was even born.

A second topic brought up in our discussion of cloning was the behavior of the clone.  As we’ve discussed during our behavioral genetics unit in class…the argument of nature vs. nurture runs deep and is very complex.  Just because you share an identical genome with someone (as identical twins may) does that mean you act the same way?  We are products of a mixture of both our genes and our experiences.  While our genetic make up my help predict how we “might” act, it does not fully dictate our actions.  I think this is represented quite well in a “This American Life” piece. Check it out here.

Let science explain how close the Butler:Duke game was April 8, 2010

Posted by Dr. O in Exercise, Fun, Physics, Science & Culture, Science Education, Uncategorized.
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In case you haven’t heard…America’s current darling (and Marian’s neighboring campus), Butler University, made a major run in this year’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.  This small Midwest liberal arts school spends $370,000 on their basketball team.   Butler’s competitor in the final, Duke, spends $370,000 PER PLAYER!

Butler lost by two points.  Gordon Hayward, who also happens to be a science major at Butler, almost won the game with a long shot at half court.  How close was it? Let science explain…

Butler University student Gordon Hayward is a science major

MU Science Club Meeting 3/18/2010 March 16, 2010

Posted by Dr. O in Science Club, Uncategorized.
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This Will Change Everything March 4, 2010

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This Will Change Everything is the title of a book (subtitle: Ideas That Will Shape The Future) edited, or perhaps assembled would be a better word, by John Brockman of the Edge Foundation. Brockman posed the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” to over 100 high-profile individuals drawn from fields including physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, information science, writing, and music. The book is a compilation of their responses, ranging from the gnomic (“Discovering that someone from the future has already come to visit us,” is the complete response of Stefano Boeri) to the fairly short (three pages being about the longest entry). It’s a perfect book to take along on spring break. But is it any good?

Two of the pieces (The Use of Nuclear Weapons against a Civilian Population by Lawrence Krauss and Adopting Rationality and Sustainability by Patrick Bateson) open with the same quotation, by Albert Einstein: “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.” This proves, perhaps, that that both authors are fans of Einstein for whom the phrase “change everything” rang a bell, or perhaps that both are adept at Googling. It also serves as evidence that Einstein was good not only for explanations of relativity, the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, and mass-energy equivalence (all of this in 1905, his annus mirabilis), but could also come up with witty epigrams to rival Woody Allen’s “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”

The titles of the pieces could be the names of short stories by J. G. Ballard. Examples:

The Robotic Moment

Breaking the Species Barrier

Avoiding Doomsday

The Ebb of Memory

Wisdom Reborn

The Reality of Time

The Slow-Motion Revolution

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the premise, many of the pieces do indeed read a little bit like outlines for science fiction stories.

There is some rough grouping based on content: sudden climate change, new energy sources, nuclear accidents, the interface between man and computer, synthetic life, the future of reading and learning. Some of the pieces are plausible, some less so. Some are startlingly insightful and intellectually stimulating; some, not so much.

The topic I found most interesting, curiously enough, is a biological one, represented in two pieces, one by Robert Shapiro (a chemist) and one by Paul Davies (a physicist). Davies’ piece (Shadow Biosphere) is the more striking. The “tree of life” present on Earth today is understood to consist of a single set of interrelated species all sharing a single genetic code and having a common origin. BUT… at the same time, almost all living things on Earth are microbes, and only a tiny fraction of microbial life has been studied to date. It is possible that there was a second, or even a third, origin of life, and that we share the planet with the products of this other genesis, a “shadow biosphere”. These micro-organisms would be extremely hard to detect, because detection and identification methods have been developed to study life “as we know it”. Wild speculation, perhaps, but thought-provoking, and experimentally-testable (if you can get the grant funding).