Science Reporting

Music can be used to help brain development of very premature children

Premature babies, i.e. those born before the 32nd week of pregnancy, now have a good chance of survival thanks to advances in medicine. However, these children are still characterized by a high risk of developing neuropsychological disorders.

A group of researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospitals of Geneva (HUG), propose, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, what can be considered as an original solution: to use music to ensure that these children, especially their brains, can develop permanently in what is still a stressful environment, that of intensive care.

Since the brains of these little ones are still very immature, we need an incubator to ensure that the brain itself can develop normally. The very immaturity of the brain, in combination with this disturbing environment, such as that of the incubator, explains why the neural networks of very premature children may not develop normally. The first experiments carried out are, according to the same researchers, “surprising”: premature newborns listening to this music show an improvement in sensory and cognitive functions and in general better brain development.

Researchers are making children listen to music specially made by composer Andreas Vollenweider who showed a strong interest in this project. The musician has used punji, a particular Indian flute (the one that in the collective imagination is used by snake charmers) thanks to which children seem to calm down almost instantly because their attention is attracted by the music, as reported by Lara Lordier, neuroscientist at the HUG, one of the authors of the research.

The first children to undergo these experiments are now six years old: this means that it is time to understand if these “therapies” have had positive effects on their possible cognitive problems since this is the age at which they begin to be detectable.

Science Reporting

Ammonia found on a surface of Pluto

Evidence of the presence of ammonia on the surface of Pluto was found by a French and US research group. The article, published in Science Advances, talks about how researchers analyzed the various data sent to Earth by the probe New Horizons, launched by NASA in 2006 and arrived near Pluto in 2015.

In particular, the researchers focused on the data of a particular area of the Virgil Fossae, an area of the surface of the dwarf planet that has large cracks on its surface, cracks that according to the researchers should be the result of volcanic activity. This is an important discovery for two reasons: first, because ammonia is not easy to detect on the planets, especially on their surface, because it does not last long since it is easily destroyed by cosmic rays and light in general.

Furthermore, the discovery would suggest that Pluto has liquid water under the surface. Because of the phenomenon of cryovolcanism, in fact, water mixed with ammonia could have been pushed from the inner parts of the planet until it escaped from these cracks. And precisely because of the nature of ammonia, the very beginning of the presence of this substance on the surface of the dwarf planet should not be sought too far back in time, perhaps until a few million years ago.

Science Reporting

Torrential rain and extreme showers increased steadily between 1964 and 2013

A new study confirms the global increase in rainfall, specifically the most violent and torrential rains, between 1964 and 2013, an increase due to global warming. The new research published in Water Resources Research shows how extreme rainfall has increased in much of Europe, Canada, the Midwest and the north-eastern region of the United States, northern Australia, western Russia and parts of China.

This would have happened in the last fifty years, the period during which global warming accelerated, as reported by Simon Papalexiou, a climatologist at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, who conducted the study with co-author Alberto Montanari, professor of hydraulics and hydrology at the University of Bologna.

And they are not natural climatic variables, according to the scientist: “The probability of this happening is less than 0.3% according to the model assumptions used.” In addition, the data reports that between 2004 and 2013 there was a 7% increase in “extreme rainfall events” globally while in Europe, during this decade, these events would have increased by 8.6%, which underlines how much the phenomenon of increased rainfall involves even more markedly Europe.

The study could not take into account the regions of South America and Africa, which were excluded due to the lack of or inadequacy of data.

According to Papalexiou, the increase in rainfall is due to global warming, the latter causing more heat in the atmosphere which in turn leads to a greater formation of atmospheric water and therefore to rainfall.

In turn, torrential rains can produce floods and disasters that can seriously threaten public health, especially if these disasters occur in areas not supported by strong health networks. In addition, torrential rains can cause landslides, damage crops and collapse buildings and structures.

Science Reporting

A new way to cultivate rare bone marrow stem cells has been discovered

Hematopoietic stem cells are rare bone marrow cells that perform important functions in the blood and immune system. In the context of the strong technological advances in laboratory stem cell growth achieved in recent years, hematopoietic cells are an exception as they are very difficult to grow in the laboratory and this has limited several research efforts related to stem cell transplantation or gene therapy for various diseases, such as cancer or blood disorders.

However, a group of researchers from Stanford and the University of Tokyo, who are unique in their field, now state that they have found a way to grow these cells very efficiently in the laboratory. Their research would show for the first time that it is possible to “persuade the hematopoietic stem of cells from mice to renew themselves hundreds or even thousands of times in a period of only 28 days.” The study was published in Nature.

Hiromitsu Nakauchi, one of the researchers involved in the project and professor of genetics at Stanford, describes the results as follows: “For 50 years, researchers in laboratories around the world have been looking for ways to grow these cells in large quantities. We have now identified a number of conditions that allow these cells to expand 900 times in a single month. We believe this approach could transform the way hematopoietic stem cell transplants and gene therapy are performed in humans.”

In addition, the researchers also found that, in the course of culture, it is possible “to use CRISPR technology to correct any genetic defects in the original hematopoietic cells. These genetically corrected cells can then be expanded for transplantation, which should allow us to use a patient’s cells as gene therapy.”

Science Reporting

Direct image of a planetary system obtained in formation 370 light-years away

A group of astronomers has succeeded in reconstructing a direct image of a planetary system that includes more than a dozen exoplanets in orbit around the star PDS 70, some 370 light-years away from us. This is the second time that we can recreate a direct image, through a combination of adaptive optics and data processing, of a system of exoplanets after that of the star HR 8799.

This planetary system is, however, perhaps more interesting because there are two planets inside the growth disk that orbits around the star. These are two more internal planets, PDS 70b and PDS 70c. It was possible to identify these two planets through a complex technique that involves the cancellation of the central light of the star.

The first has a mass from four to 17 times that of Jupiter and was also detected and photographed for the first time in 2018. The second, just spotted, is near the outer edge of the growth disk at a distance from its star similar to that separating Neptune from the Sun. PDS 70 c is less massive than the first exoplanet and is characterized by a mass between one and 10 times that of Jupiter.

The discovery of this system shows that the planetary disks around the stars can be large enough to be observed directly. Already with very powerful tools, such as Hubble or the large optical terrestrial telescopes, it is possible to detect rings or discs around the stars and the question that astronomers ask themselves when they are detected is always the same: are there planets in formation in these rings? In this case, the answer is positive, an answer that makes us think that in many cases it may be the same.

And in the future things should improve even further with the putting into orbit of the James Webb Space Telescope from NASA. Through sophisticated spectral techniques, this telescope will allow analyzing in more detail not only this planetary system but also others that contain exoplanets in formation.

Science Reporting

First eruption detected in a star 450 light-years away

A powerful star eruption has been identified in the atmosphere of the active star HR 9024, also known as OU Andromedae, a giant star with a high X-ray brightness that causes a giant plasma bubble around the surface of the star itself. The star is about 450 light-years away from us.

This is the first direct observation of a coronal mass ejection (CME), a phenomenon that until now had only been observed directly on our sun. During this blasting, very hot material was ejected with a speed of between 362,000 and one and a half million miles per hour.

The study, published in Nature Astronomy, describes how the astronomers of the National Institute of Astrophysics in Italy have collected and analyzed the data of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA space telescope.

Explaining the mode of data analysis is the researcher Costanza Argiroffi of the University of Palermo: “The technique we used is based on monitoring the speed of plasma during a stellar blast. This is because, in analogy with the solar case, it is expected that, during a blast, the plasmas confined in the coronal arc where the blast occurs move first upwards, and then towards the lower layers of the stellar atmosphere. In addition, it is also expected to observe a further motion, always directed upwards, due to the CME associated with the blasting.”

The study is important because it shows for the first time that coronal mass ejections can be considered as common events also in other stars, at least in those magnetically active. Moreover, the data confirm the previous theories related to this type of stellar phenomenon.