From breakups to unbreakable paper: Four cool discoveries made at Northwestern

    What happens in Tech besides freshmen getting lost? Things get discovered. Northwestern is a leading research university that pumps out significant scientific breakthroughs throughout the year. Here are a few studies that might even tickle the brain cells of the most science-hating English major.


    Photo by Christina Snyder on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

    Don’t fear the breakup

    The gist: Breaking up isn’t as bad as people think.

    The science: In a recent study, participants predicted how badly they’d feel after a breakup. The reality was never as terrible as they expected.

    In their research, Northwestern professor Eli Finkel and graduate student Paul Eastwick – the researchers who brought us the speed-dating study – along with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, show that people exaggerate the life-changing implications of a breakup while they’re still in the relationship. They often overlook the pluses of no longer being attached — like freedom.

    The study followed 26 individuals (10 women and 16 men) who broke up with their partners. It compared predicted stress levels, taken before the separation, with actual ones after breakups. Participants did suffer stress, but it was not as much as they had predicted. “[The study’s results] suggest that people — especially those who are strongly in love with their partners — underestimate their ability to live a happy, well-adjusted life without their beloved. More broadly, it appears that people underestimate their ability to cope with upsetting life events,” said Finkel in an e-mail.


    Photo by DeathByBokeh on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

    Alzheimer’s = diabetes?

    The gist: Alzheimer’s is caused by problems with the hormone insulin, just like diabetes.

    The science: Alzheimer’s disease disconnects insulin from its receptors, which hampers the creation of new memories.

    The study, led by William L. Klein, professor of neurobiology and physiology, found that a toxic protein (ADDL) removes insulin receptors from nerves so they can’t function. The protein has been known to attack other memory centers in the brain.

    There are two types of diabetes: types 1 and 2, both caused by problems with insulin. Some scientists call Alzheimer’s “type 3 diabetes” because it is associated with insulin malfunction.

    The study gives hope that researchers can find a better therapy for Alzheimer’s by creating drugs that attack ADDLs. New treatments will likely be similar to those for type 2 diabetes.


    Photo by _remo on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    Can’t get through that textbook? Learn an instrument.

    The gist: Practicing an instrument may help with literacy and other communication skills.

    The science: The Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory has found that learning to play music helps develop better communication skills — in fact, it may be more effective than learning phonics. Neuroscience and communication studies professor Nina Kraus led the research, which found that musicians have a specialized brain stem, making them better adapted to understand visual and audio information simultaneously.

    The brain stem is the highway to an area between the eyes and ears that processes thought, music and speech information. This study suggests that music could be used as therapy for literacy disorders and to help develop reading skills.

    In the study, participants wore a headpiece with electrodes that recorded responses while they watched audio-visual clips of people speaking and playing the cello. The subjects with more years of musical training were better at identifying the qualities of sound necessary for understanding the emotions and identity of the speaker.


    Photo by gualtiero on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.

    New type of paper is a big deal

    The gist: There’s a new, stronger, harder paper material that may make hydrogen fuel cells viable.

    The science:Graphene paper is a new material made of single atom-thick carbon sheets stacked on top of each other. Rod Ruoff, former NU professor of nano-engineering and leader of the study, told the Northwestern NewsCenter, “The stiffness and strength of these graphene-like sheets should be superior to all other materials, with the possible exception of diamond… The mechanical, thermal, optical and electrical properties of graphene are exceptional.”

    To create the paper, scientists burned graphite (the “lead” in a pencil) that was exposed to air and then put into water. The material crumbled into little pieces of graphene oxide. The scientists then formed these pieces into a sheet more than five inches long.

    But what is it good for? One possible use is as a conductor in batteries. Another is to create super-thin filters for medical purposes. If combined with metals or plastics, it would create stronger, more flexible, lighter and all-around better materials for use in cars, planes and more. “The possibilities for further ‘tuning’ of this material are almost endless,” said Ruoff in an e-mail.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.