Thursday, August 22, 2019

Nose - The Tip of the Smelling Story

Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) and Harvard have found that smell is based on more than the neuronal networks that receive various stimuli. Different from vision (that pays attention to edges, shading, brightness, and color), smell is affected by odor molecules and a lot of other intriguing unknowns. 

Odors, good or bad, enter the nose as the front door of the smelling (olfactory) mechanism. Some smells like your breath and sweat are identified as "self" and mostly ignored. (Unless you have been on the tennis court or football field for a heavy workout. Then the usual monitoring gets kicked up a notch and even YOU notice you stink.) 

Other smells set off different neural activity patterns across the brain. 

In mammals, the olfactory bulb has neuronal circuits that process information via receptors. It sends information to higher processing brain areas, including the cerebral cortex. There, smell messages are analyzed thoroughly and sent across the brain (i.e. chocolate=yum or skunk spray=yuck) before they return to the bulb in a feedback loop.

The latest research shows that signaling is linear and is further analyzed in the brain with respect to intensity, known characteristics, and past experience (i.e., banana or mountain lion). Go Science!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Nanoparticles and Near Infrared Vision

Last month an article was published in Cell describing how researchers had injected the retinas of mice with nanoparticles that attached to retinal photoreceptor cells and changed near-infrared light (IR) to green light the animals could see in the dark. Like a mouse version of night vision goggles without the goggles.

To see if the treated mice could actually see in the IR range (700 nanometers to 1 millimeter), they checked the pupils of the injected mice and noted that the test animals' eyes constricted when shown 900 nm light, while the controls (not treated) mice did not.  

Then, researchers gave the mice a choice of two boxes: one that was completely dark and one illuminated by near-infrared light. Control mice spent time in both boxes, but mice with nanoparticle treated retinas chose the dark box, suggesting that they could see the near-IR light and preferred the dark. 

This research has tons of applications. All of which are fascinating. I plan to keep an eye on developments in mammalian night vision. Who knows? Maybe someday everyone will have excellent night vision and no one will stub a toe in the dark. Go science!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Comet Watching for One and All

If you have a desire to look up into the night sky and watch comets go by like I do, you won't want to miss the 46P/Wirtanen comet on December 17, 2018 (when it makes its closest approach). This brilliant cosmic tourist may also be seen by the naked eye or with binoculars (this year) so everyone can try to spot it.

Check out the NASA video and description of the best hours/days and ways to view this wonderful astronomical occurrence. The next visit of the Wirtanen comet is projected to be much less impressive. So get out your coats, chairs and various gear now. Go science!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

International Observe the Moon night

Okay, vacations and summer heat behind us, it's time to get back to science. In this case, space science that anyone, any age, can do - moon observations.

The October 20, 2018 event is the International Observe the Moon Night. This worldwide focus on lunar science and exploration, held since 2010 takes place in Sept. or Oct. annually.

It's a chance to learn about our most observed neighbor and later allow you to offer up lunar factoids at everything from kids' birthday to cocktail parties (well ones where all your space science friends attend). 

This year also marks the 50th year anniversary of Apollo 8 visiting the moon and creates a chance to talk about past, present, and future lunar and planetary science and exploration. Plus, we can celebrate all the scientists/engineers who participated and shared in this tremendous human achievement.

Want to join the fun? Check out NASA's 2018 Moon Maps of how the Moon will appear on International Observe the Moon Night from the northern and southern hemispheres. Go science!