Summer science roundup

    During the dark days of summer, when inboxes sat devoid of listserv emails begging for meeting attendance and flyering help, Northwestern's Media Relations news releases kept on trucking. Aside from Living Social deals promising discount skydiving and a guns-and-alcohol adventure for slashed prices, their loud subject lines provided a little extra spunk to my morning email check. Check out the coolest research you missed while you were galavanting through Europe/learning the finer points of copying as an intern-slave/wasting Northwestern's grant money. 


    Yeah, your brain is playing games with you — the kind you played on rainy days in 5th grade when you couldn't go outside for recess. A study by a Feinberg postdoc published in the Journal of Neuroscience at the end of August found that when you remember an event, it alters the networks within your brain to store the memory in a different place, so that you start to remember your memory of the event rather than the actual event. Your brain can even pull from aspects of your environment and mood at the time that you recall information and integrate it into the memory. 


    Sorry, you can't wake up fluent in French just by sleeping through eight hours of instructional tapes. But if you're trying to memorize that song you're planning on nailing during your audition for Purple Haze, listening to it during your nap may help, according to a study in Nature Neuroscience's June issue. Researchers played soft music for their subjects during slow-wave sleep, which past research has linked to reinforcing memories. The study's subjects remembered melodies better if they had listened to them as they slept than if they had not. More importantly: Someone got paid to take a 90-minute nap on Northwestern's dime. 


    Press releases to keep you up at night: Northwestern has created an "immortal chemist." Unfortunately, it's doesn't contain news of a forced vampire conversion in the chemistry department, but rather "a chemical Google on steroids" — a software network of seven million chemicals connected by reactions. Chematica finds more efficient ways to combine longer syntheses of compounds, and can flag recipes for chemical weapon cocktails. As more data is added to to network, the algorithm that searches and analyzes it will learn and improve. Unlike a human, it can test every possible chemical synthesis in existence, allowing it to find better ways to make chemicals, cutting costs and avoiding environmentally dangerous compounds. 


    Your brain really, really wants you to be able to smell a skunk. When your nose is stuffed up, your brain tries to adjust to the unusual lack of smelly intel so that it can bounce back quickly once you're breathing easy again. To prove that, fourteen people let a Feinberg neuroscience grad student block their nostrils from smelling while they lived in a low-odor hospital room. (They were allowed to breathe normally while they slept.) When regular breathing returned, people could smell again immediately, but activity in the part of the brain associated with the sense of smell had increased. Levels of brain activity normalized in the week after the experience, but the experiment suggests that not being able to smell has more of an impact on your brain than on your nose. 


    In the latest way that college students can be idiots, most first-year college students in a study published in Policy & Internet couldn't figure out how to navigate the interwebs to figure out how to get their hands on emergency contraception. Students got the chance to imagine a hypothetical scenario in which a friend at home in a different state needed help figuring out what to do after their condom broke during sex. Two-thirds of the students were able to figure out that emergency contraception should be acquired, but only 40 percent successfully figured out how to get ahold of it. Actual suggestions from the other 60 percent of respondents included "wait it out" and "buy another condom." Thank you, abstinence-only education. 


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