Science Briefs: 'Genetic switch' erases memories in mice

'Genetic switch' erases memories in mice

Researchers from Belgium and Germany have found a way to erase memories in mice at will, by using a "genetic switch".

The scientists from KU Leuven in Belgium and the Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology in Germany trained mice that had been genetically modified in one gene: neuroplastin. Changes in this gene have recently been linked to decreased intellectual abilities and schizophrenia in humans.

The mice were trained to perform a task through associative learning, the process by which someone learns an association between two stimuli, for example, a dog conditioned to associate the sound of a bell with getting food.

When the scientists switched off the neuroplastin gene after conditioning the mice, they were no longer able to perform the task properly. Mice with the neuroplastin gene switched on, by contrast, could still do the task perfectly.

Said Professor Detlef Balschun from the KU Leuven Laboratory of Biological Psychology: "Switching off the neuroplastin gene has an impact on the behaviour of the mice, because it interferes with the communication between their brain cells."

By measuring the electrical signals in the brain, the KU Leuven team discovered clear deficits in the cellular mechanism used to store memories. These changes are even visible at the level of individual brain cells, as postdoctoral researcher Victor Sabanov was able to show.

The researchers added that further research is needed to show whether neuroplastin also plays a role in other forms of learning.


New computer algorithm detects social network mental disorders

A group of professors from universities in the United States, Taiwan and China have created a computer algorithm to identify social network users with social network mental disorders (SNMDs).

The algorithm, named Social Network Mental Disorder Detection, uses features extracted from social network data to identify potential cases of SNMDs. Examples of SNMDs include cyber-relationship addiction, information overload and Internet compulsion.

The effectiveness of the algorithm was evaluated through a user study involving over 3,000 social network users from various backgrounds and nationalities.

Each user filled out a standard questionnaire, and a group of professional psychiatrists participating in the research assessed and labelled the users as potential SNMD cases (and identified their types of SNMD) or normal users.

The results obtained by the psychiatrists supported those from the algorithm.

One of the scientists involved in the research, Associate Professor Lee Wang-Chien from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, said that while the algorithm could allow SNMDs to be detected in advance, it still cannot replace the conventional approach of seeking out a psychiatrist for treatment.

He said, though, that the research could create an opportunity for scientists to work more closely with mental healthcare professionals. "We are interested to collaborate with mental healthcare professionals such as psychiatrists in order to learn more about these disorders."


Secrets of birds and bees inspire drone researchers

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of the future will be able to visually coordinate their flight and navigation just like birds and flying insects do, without needing human input, radar or even Global Positioning System satellite navigation.

These UAVs could be incredibly useful for applications like surveillance, rescue operations, defence and planetary exploration, scientists believe.

A research group at the University of Queensland, Australia, is trying to make this future a reality by uncovering flying techniques that budgerigars and bees share, and applying their findings to UAV control programs. Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, who is leading the research, said the team's focus is on how small airborne creatures such as bees and birds use their vision to avoid collisions with obstacles, fly safely through narrow passages, control their height above the ground and more. "We then use biologically inspired principles to design novel vision systems and algorithms for the guidance of UAVs," he said.

"Bees' brains weigh a tenth of a milligram and carry far fewer neurons than our own brains; yet the insects are capable of navigating accurately to food sources over 10km away from their hive," remarks Prof Srinivasan. "Birds too can perform incredible aerobatics and navigational feats. They are clearly using simple and elegant strategies, honed by thousands of years of evolution."

Compiled by Samantha Boh and Rachel Oh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Science Briefs'. Print Edition | Subscribe