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University of Cambridge news

The latest study and research news from the University of Cambridge

August 2012
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New funding for part-time study could boost student numbers

New government funding for part-time study may lead to a surge of older students returning to the classroom, according to the Director of the Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) at the University of Cambridge.

This year, for the first time, the Government has announced that it will be funding student loans for part-time study towards an award, with no upper age limit for applying.

From 1 September 2012, part-time students studying for higher qualifications than they already hold (and provided they are resident in the UK or EU) will be eligible to apply for a tuition fee loan of up to £6,750, meaning they will not have to pay for any tuition fees up front.

Under the new rules, students will not have to repay their loans until they are earning more than £21,000 a year – meaning that many who are retired or on state pensions, sometimes known as ‘grey students’, may never have to repay their student loans.

ICE’s Dr Rebecca Lingwood said: ‘We’re delighted that the value of part-time study is being recognised, with the introduction of Tuition Fee Loans. Here at ICE, our part-time Certificate and Diploma courses, which are undergraduate-level University of Cambridge awards, attract a huge range of people, many of whom are studying at university level for the first time and do not have the time or the resources to embark on a full-time degree. ICE offers them an accessible, intimidation-free route into higher education, and gives access to Cambridge’s world-class expertise and facilities.

‘ICE courses are also very good value for money compared with traditional undergraduate degrees. A typical Certificate course equating to half a year’s undergraduate study costs around £1,350.’

And with current research at Cambridge and elsewhere suggesting that education – at whatever age – can help keep the brain healthy, there may never have been a better time for students of all ages to apply.

Dr Lorraine Taylor, from Cambridge University’s Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain, said: ‘Extensive amounts of research have shown that, whatever our age, maintaining social, intellectual or physical activities has benefits on quality of life, wellbeing, and health which in turn improve cognition.

‘Studying later in life has many benefits; it not only increases our skills but also increases confidence, social interaction and general engagement in life. All of these help to maintain cognitive and physical health throughout our lives and into old age.’

Certificate and Diploma applications for the new academic year at the University’s Institute of Continuing Education opened to the public in June and close on 10 September 2012.

Among ICE’s new courses for 2012–13 are an Undergraduate Certificate in Astronomy, Undergraduate Diploma in English Literature, an Undergraduate Diploma in Coaching and an Undergraduate Advanced Diploma in Philosophy.

ICE is also expected to launch an Advanced Diploma in Ecological Monitoring and Conservation from February 2013.

Advanced Diplomas are two-year, part-time research-based courses taught at third-year undergraduate level via a series of one-to-one supervisions. So, they are well-suited to those living farther afield but able to travel to Cambridge occasionally and they provide a solid foundation for postgraduate study.

Added Lingwood: ‘Higher education can be a truly life-changing experience for many adults. We hope that the new loan scheme will make part-time study accessible to more people than ever before.’

Further details about the Institute and its range of courses.

Find out more about the University of Cambridge.

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Cuckoo tricks to beat the neighbourhood watch

To minimise the chance of being recognised and thus attacked by the birds they are trying to parasitize, female cuckoos have evolved different guises. The new research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, was published on 3 August in the journal Science.

The common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. On hatching, the young cuckoo ejects the host’s eggs and chicks from the nest, so the hosts end up raising a cuckoo chick rather than a brood of their own. To fight back, reed warblers (a common host across Europe) have a first line of defence: they attack, or ‘mob’, the female cuckoo, which reduces the chance that their nest is parasitized.

Some female common cuckoos are grey and hawk-like, and previous research has shown that their resemblance to hawks reduces host bird attack. However, other females are bright rufous (brownish-red). The presence of alternate colour morphs in the same species is rare in birds, but frequent among the females of parasitic cuckoo species. The new research shows that this is another cuckoo trick: cuckoos combat reed warbler mobbing by coming in different guises.

Cuckoos are secretive. To widen their source of information about local cuckoo activity, reed warblers eavesdrop on the mobbing behaviour of their neighbours. In the study, the researchers manipulated local frequencies of the more common grey colour cuckoo and the less common (in the United Kingdom) rufous colour cuckoo by placing models of the birds at neighbouring nests. They then recorded how the experience of watching neighbours mob changed reed warbler responses back at their own nest.

They found that reed warblers increased their mobbing, but only to the cuckoo morph that their neighbours had mobbed. Therefore, as one cuckoo morph increases in frequency, local host populations will become alerted specifically to that morph. This means the alternate morph will be more likely to slip past host defences and lay undetected. This is the first time that ‘social learning’ has been documented in the evolution of mimicry as well as the evolution of different observable characteristics – such as colour – in the same species (called polymorphism).

Dr Rose Thorogood, of the University of Cambridge and co-author on the paper, said: ‘When mimetic disguises become less effective, evolving a polymorphism can be a successful trick. Our research shows that individuals assess disguises not only from personal experience, but also by observing others. However, because their learning is so specific, this social learning then selects for alternative cuckoo disguises and the arms race continues.’

Professor Nick Davies, of the University of Cambridge and co-author on the paper, added: ‘It’s well known that cuckoos have evolved various egg types which mimic those of their hosts in order to combat rejection. This research shows that cuckoos have also evolved alternate female morphs to sneak through the hosts’ defences. This explains why many species which use mimicry, such as the cuckoo, evolve different guises.

Find out more about the University of Cambridge.

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Sing for the win

A new game for the iPhone and iPad called SingSmash is taking an innovative approach to familiarising people with music theory – by sneaking it in the backdoor.

Gamers have to sing into their phone or tablet. By hitting the required note at the right moment, a chunk of translucent wall is briefly rendered impermeable – hopefully in time to bounce a constantly moving ball back at the opposite side, knocking out blocks to progress to increasingly complex levels.

Released on 22 July 2012, the game – which is like a handheld mash-up of a brightly coloured ‘Pong’ and an exacting, stripped-down ‘Rock Band’ – was developed by University of Cambridge MPhil student Charlie Williams from the Centre for Music and Science as a response to his experiences teaching music.

Utilising the game format, the app gets people stretching their vocal chords to ricochet the ball back at opposing blocks – while stealthily introducing them to basic music theory by explaining what they’ve just sung.

‘I didn’t want to put theory up front and scare people by stating “Now try and sing a harmonic minor scale” – which can sound pretty daunting’ says Williams. ‘But if you beat a level, then you find out “Guess what? You’ve just sung a harmonic minor scale!” – people can start to gain confidence, recognise notes and even discover talents with voice and pitch they may have never realised they possess.’

Williams feels that the way a lot of music is taught to beginners can often miss the point: that the first and most important thing with music is to have a go. He hopes SingSmash will help people overcome self-consciousness and get them to do just that, singing an increasingly adventurous series of notes and even licks as they progress.

‘In many music lessons, you learn the names for things first and then you learn how to do it – which seems completely backwards and can put people off. When I teach music I try to emphasise actually doing it first, and I wanted to build a game to encourage that and make it fun, while slipping in the educational aspect so that if people want to build on skills they develop through the game then they can.’

SingSmash uses inbuilt algorithms and pitch detectors to match the incoming sound to the best fit note within a broad but specified spectrum. To help people stay within the right range, the background music and in-game sounds – such as the collision noise – subtly match the notes of each level.

There is also a cunning secret feature – known in the gaming industry as an ‘Easter egg’ – which gives you a helping hand if you sing in a certain way, although Williams is keen not to spoil the surprise.

The game starts at a basic level and is very kid-friendly, but employs increasingly complex musical motifs as players advance through the game – to the point where the beta-testers Williams used have yet to crack the hardest level with their voice alone.

‘You can play SingSmash using an instrument too, and my most enthusiastic beta-testers said they could only beat the top level with guitar. To my knowledge, no one has managed to beat it just by singing as yet, so that’s a challenge right there!’

The app was built by Williams – who has gone from classically trained musician to self-confessed ‘tech-head’ – in collaboration with musician Emma Hooper and graphic artist Jeff Kulak. It will initially cost 59p to download, a decision the team were reluctant to take, but, as Williams points out, ‘we are desperate to spend more time making games, and that takes money.’

‘A lot of people who are self-taught are adverse to music theory, it can seem elitist and put people off,’ says Williams. ‘I’m hoping that people who play guitar in a band or whatever can use this as a fun way to build up their skills and explore new musical patterns.’

‘You don’t have to sing nicely, you just have to sing on the pitch – I hope this app will encourage people to not be so self-conscious and just make some noise. The best thing about kids is they just go for it right away, people are so worried about doing something wrong – this app is almost like a trick that might get adults to forget they are actually singing!

Find out more about the University of Cambridge.

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The sensation of cold is shut down by inflammation

A mechanism regulating our sensation of cold has been identified. Research groups at the University of Cambridge and the Instituto de Neurociencias, in Spain, have discovered a new and unexpected mechanism by which cold sensation is regulated, and opens up the possibility of developing drugs to mimic the well-known analgesic effects of cold and menthol.

The sensation of coolness is essential for our everyday life. Although extreme cold causes pain, moderate cooling inhibits pain, such as holding a burned hand under a cold tap. Another way to produce a sensation of coolness, and therefore to relieve pain, is to apply menthol, a compound present naturally in mint and widely used in peppermints and in pain-relieving rubs.

Cooling works by activating a protein named TRPM8, an ion channel which allows electric charge to flow across cell membranes. Menthol produces a sensation of coolness by acting on the same protein.

Unfortunately, the analgesic effects of cooling or menthol are disrupted by inflammation, but to date scientists have not been clear how inflammation interferes with cold perception.

Dr Xuming Zhang and Professor Peter McNaughton at the Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge, have found that a novel mechanism is responsible – a critical intermediate protein, called a Gq protein, binds directly to TRPM8 and when compounds, such as histamine, are released by inflammation, Gq is rapidly activated and switches TRPM8 off. Cold sensation is therefore deactivated by inflammation. The findings suggest that reversing this process, and reactivating cold sensation, may be a useful analgesic strategy.

‘This novel mechanism opens up the possibility that the cold pathway could be manipulated clinically simply by disrupting the interaction of Gq protein with the TRPM8 channel’ Dr Zhang said.

The finding that Gq directly inhibits TRPM8 is surprising because while Gq is involved in several cellular signalling process, it has not previously been thought to act on ion channels in this way.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC) funded research was published on 1 July in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

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Chronic cocaine use may speed up ageing of brain

New research by scientists at the University of Cambridge suggests that chronic cocaine abuse accelerates the process of brain ageing.

The study, published on 25 April in Molecular Psychiatry, found that age-related loss of grey matter in the brain is greater in people who are dependent on cocaine than in the healthy population.

For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 120 people with similar age, gender and verbal IQ. Half of the individuals had a dependence on cocaine while the other 60 had no history of substance abuse disorders.

The researchers found that the rate of age-related grey matter volume loss in cocaine-dependent individuals was significantly greater than in healthy volunteers. The cocaine users lost about 3.08 ml brain volume per year, which is almost twice the rate of healthy volunteers (who only lost about 1.69 ml per year). The accelerated age-related decline in brain volume was most prominent in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, important regions of the brain which are associated with attention, decision-making, and self-regulation as well as memory.

Previous studies have shown that psychological and physiological changes typically associated with old age such as cognitive decline, brain atrophy and immunodeficiency are also seen in middle-aged cocaine-dependent individuals. However, this is the first time that premature ageing of the brain has been associated with chronic cocaine abuse.

Dr Karen Ersche, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘As we age, we all lose grey matter. However, what we have seen is that chronic cocaine users lose grey matter at a significantly faster rate, which could be a sign of premature ageing. Our findings therefore provide new insight into why the cognitive deficits typically seen in old age have frequently been observed in middle aged chronic users of cocaine.’

The scientists also highlight concerns that premature ageing in chronic cocaine users is an emerging public health concern. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine is used by up to 21 million individuals worldwide, with approximately one per cent of these individuals becoming dependent.

Dr Ersche said: ‘Our findings clearly highlight the need for preventative strategies to address the risk of premature ageing associated with cocaine abuse. Young people taking cocaine today need to be educated about the long-term risk of ageing prematurely.’

The concern of accelerated ageing is not limited to young people but also affects older adults who have been abusing drugs such as cocaine since early adulthood.

Dr Ersche added: ‘Our findings shed light on the largely neglected problem of the growing number of older drug users, whose needs are not so well catered for in drug treatment services. It is timely for heath care providers to understand and recognise the needs of older drug users in order to design and administer age-appropriate treatments.’

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Look familiar?

An online game which tests Londoners’ ability to recognise parts of the capital has been devised by researchers as the first step in a project to create a ‘memory map’ of the city.

‘Urbanopticon’, which can be found at www.urbanopticon.org is free to use and takes just minutes to play. Players are shown randomly-selected photographs of different London streets and asked to name the nearest tube station, or to identify the borough in which the photo was taken. They can also share their score with friends on Facebook and Twitter.

The game is also part of a serious experiment, however. Building on long-standing studies which show that we each create our own mental map of a city, the researchers will use the results to map recognisability across London. Theorists have suggested that the recognisability of the urban environment is closely linked to people’s well-being. The project will also investigate how far it is linked to social deprivation.

In the long-term, the data from Urbanopticon could be used to help town planners focus on where the urban environment needs most improvement, so that people feel more at home.

Daniele Quercia, from the University of Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory and one of four researchers who designed the project, said: ‘When we build communities, we try to give ourselves pointers and signs that enable us to recognise where we are. This improves our ability to find our way around and, as a result, it improves our lives.

‘The question is, where has this been done to best effect, and why? What we are trying to create through the game is a memory map using information provided by Londoners themselves. That map will then become a tool which helps us to determine where London needs to be improved for the sake of its residents.’

The images used in the game are selected at random from Google Street View. At the end, players are also asked to complete a survey which asks where they are from, where they work, and how well they know different parts of the city.

Using this information, the site essentially extracts Londoners’ mental images of the city, testing which places are remarkable and unmistakable, and which are forgettable and anonymous.

The reasoning for the project comes from the work of the eminent 20th century sociologist, Kevin Lynch, whose ground-breaking research made a significant contribution to city planning and design. Lynch showed that everyone living in an urban environment creates their own personal ‘mental map’ of the city, based on features such as routes they use, buildings and familiar locations, and the boundaries which define the areas they frequent.

As a result, Lynch argued that the more recognisable the features of a city are, the more navigable it is. This is closely linked to well-being, as well as other crucial determinants of a city’s success, such as crime levels and economics. According to the theory, cities with more character and recognisability tend to be used more by their population, creating a stronger sense of community.

‘Imagine two extremes,’ Quercia explained. ‘In one case, you have a very navigable city, where people can find their way around easily. In the other, you have a city in which it is much harder to navigate and people get lost all the time. In the second case, people stick to what they know, movement is more restricted to certain thoroughfares and more parts of the environment feel unfamiliar and threatening. The layout of the urban space plugs directly into our sense of well-being.’

In the long term, the researchers hope to link the data they gather from Urbanopticon to indeces of deprivation based on levels of unemployment and health services. The aim of this will be to see if recognisability is linked not just to community well-being, but deprivation as well.

They also hope to track visibility over time, to see if new buildings change the recognisability of an area and, in the process, whether indices of deprivation change as well.

‘The study of community well-being is really only just beginning, and very little research has been done to investigate how much of a sense of belonging people have in different neighbourhoods and why,’ Quercia added. ‘In the long-term, if this research in London is successful, we hope to be able to apply similar techniques to build memory maps for cities all over the world.’

More information can be found at www.urbanopticon.org.

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Endowment creates ‘the most attractive job in German Studies in the world’

A distinguished Professorship of German at the University of Cambridge has been endowed in perpetuity thanks to a generous £2m benefaction from The Schroder Foundation, the charitable trust of the Schroder family.

The Schröder Professor of German plays a leading role in enhancing public understanding of German in the English-speaking world.

The post was originally created in 1909 thanks to a benefaction from J Henry Schröder & Co, the London merchant bank, now known as Schroders plc.

The current Schröder Professor of German, Professor Nicholas Boyle, was elected in 2006. Before that he was Professor of German Literary and Intellectual History, and he has taught German in Cambridge since he was a student.

Speaking of the re-endowment he said: ‘The Schröder Professorship is the historic core of German teaching in Cambridge, and its prestige underwrites the future ability of Cambridge German to attract the best staff, researchers and students from around the world.

‘To understand German literature, philosophy, and culture is not only to understand our often unacknowledged intellectual and cultural debt to them. It is also to understand how our own lives are bound up with the complex history of the German-speaking peoples.’

His Head of Department, Professor Andrew Webber, said: ‘Over the last century, the Schröder Professors have demonstrated the pivotal role played by the German-speaking world and the Professorship represents the pinnacle of the achievements of German studies at Cambridge. This generous benefaction means the Schröder Professorship is probably the most attractive job in German Studies in the world. For generations to come, the Schröder Professor will set the agenda in this key area of cultural enquiry.’

The trustees of The Schroder Foundation said: ‘At a time when the Arts and Humanities face substantial challenges in funding, we are delighted to re-endow this distinguished Professorship at Cambridge.’

The Schroder Foundation was formally admitted to the Guild of Cambridge Benefactors in recognition of its gift on Wednesday 21 March 2012. The trustees were represented by Mr Bruno Schroder, a grandson of Baron Bruno Schröder who initiated the original endowment of the Schröder Professorship.

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Cambridge study charts the past to anticipate the future

A new Cambridge-led study has examined the past 60 years of incidence data on psychotic disorders in England in the hope that the data can reveal clues about the possible social factors which appear to underpin such conditions.

The systematic review published in PLoS One, which was conducted by the Department of Psychiatry EpiCentre at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the Institute of Psychiatry, KCL, examined incidence rates of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders in England between 1950–2009.

Dr James Kirkbride explains: ‘Our review confirms that the social environment is an important determinant of risk for psychotic disorders; genetic factors are not the sole causes and, where important, must often operate in conjunction with the environment.’

By analyzing the results of all relevant studies available since 1950, the research team showed that urban settings tended to experience higher rates of some psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. The study also confirmed that rates of psychotic disorder were elevated in several migrant groups and their offspring in England.

The findings mark an important step in being able to anticipate how the risk of psychotic disorders varies according to sociodemographic factors and characteristics of the social environment, so that appropriate healthcare can be provided. It shows that both the brain and its environment are crucial elements in understanding serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

The results also have important implications for public health and planning services in the NHS. Dr Kirkbride said: ‘These data will allow us to build prediction models for the expected number of new cases of psychotic illness in different regions of England, according to the exact sociodemographic composition of their populations, and according to other social factors such as economic deprivation or social cohesion.’

The study found no evidence to support an overall change or increase of psychotic disorder over time, though the study did chart a diagnostic shift away from schizophrenia.

The study Incidence of schizophrenia and other psychoses in England, 1950–2009: a systematic review and meta-analyses was funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme, the NIHR and the Wellcome Trust. 83 citations from previous studies spanning the 60 years qualified for inclusion into the analysis.

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Rainforest remedy could spell end of dental pain

An ancient Incan toothache remedy – for centuries handed down among an indigenous people in the rainforests of Peru – could be on the cusp of revolutionising worldwide dental practice.

The remedy, made from an Amazonian plant species from varieties of Acmella Oleracea and turned into a gel for medical use, has proved hugely successful during the first two phases of clinical trials and may hasten the end of current reliance on local anaesthetics in dental use and Non-Steroid Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) in specific applications.

Cambridge University anthropologist Dr Françoise Barbira Freedman, the first westerner to be invited to live with the Keshwa Lamas in Amazonian Peru, is leading efforts to bring this wholly natural painkiller to the global marketplace as an organic alternative to synthetic painkillers.

In doing so, the company she founded, Ampika Ltd (a spin-out from Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation arm) will be run according to strict ethical guidelines, and will be able to channel a percentage of any future profits back to the Keshwa Lamas community who agreed to share their expertise with her.

With no known side-effects during the past five years of Phase I and II trials, Dr Freedman, who has continued to visit and live among the Keshwa Lamas over the past 30 years, is confident the stringent Phase III trials (multi-location trials across a diverse population mix) will be the final hurdle to clear. If successful, Ampika’s plan is to bring the product to market in 2014/15.

She said: ‘The story began in 1975 when I first went to live among the indigenous people of Peru. We were trekking through the rainforest and I was having terrible trouble with my wisdom teeth. One of the men with me noticed and prepared a little wad of plants to bite onto. The pain went away. When it came back a few hours later, he had foreseen the need and kept plant material in his hunters’ bag for me.

‘I forgot all about the wisdom teeth problem for many years until Cambridge-based neuroscientist Dr Mark Treherne asked me to bring some medicinal plant samples back in order to test them for neurological research. Almost as an afterthought I remembered to include the one I’d used on my teeth. It was added to the bottom of the list, but somehow the list got reversed and it was the first one tested back in the UK. It was immediately successful and we’ve never looked back.

‘During the time I have spent with the Keshwa Lamas I’ve learnt all about the different plants and leaves they use for everyday illnesses and ailments. I first went to Peru as a young researcher hoping to learn more about what was a secretive community who were experts in shamanism. Along the way I’ve learnt a great deal about natural medicines and remedies; everything from toothache to childbirth.’

‘This treatment for toothache means we could be looking at the end of some injections in the dentist’s surgery. The native forest people described to me exactly how the medicine could and should work and they were absolutely right. There are a range of mucous tissue applications it could benefit, and may even help bowel complaints such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).’

The Keshwa Lamas remedy represents the first clinical trial of a natural product in Peru using the International Convention of Clinical Trials, of which Peru is a signatory, the gold-standard for clinical trials that is recognised across the Pacific and Atlantic regions.

Dr Freedman, who will visit the Peruvian community again in the coming weeks, has already been able to channel some early funding to the Keshwa Lama to help in the creation of a medicinal plant garden to conserve plants and plant knowledge related to women’s health and maternity care – with the express aim of preserving wisdom for future generations.

She added: ‘We think the remedy is better than current treatments because NSAID drugs are systemic and have long-term effects; the plant product is not systemic and does not have any known side-effects. We think people prefer to use natural products and this is particularly the case for baby teething – for which, to my knowledge, there is no clinically tested natural alternative.’

The dentists who carried out the Phase 2 trial reported a high level of satisfaction among their patients who disliked injections and did not need to use painkillers after the periodontological procedures.

There was also a higher rate of patient return for further appointments than average for the group with which the plant gel was used. The gel works by blocking nerve endings (sodium channel pathways).

Ampika has a portfolio of plant-based drug development, particularly related to women’s health conditions and Type 2 diabetes, which it hopes to develop in the coming years.

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Human’s oldest ancestor found

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) have confirmed that a 505 million-year-old creature, found only in the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Canada’s Yoho National Park, is the most primitive known vertebrate and therefore the ancestor of all descendant vertebrates, including humans.

The research team’s analysis proves the extinct Pikaia gracilens is the most primitive member of the chordate family, the group of animals that today includes fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals.

The study is based on the analysis of 114 specimens and was published in the British scientific journal Biological Reviews on 5 March.

Pikaia was first described, on the basis of only a few specimens, by American palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott in 1911 as a possible annelid worm, a group that includes today’s leeches and earthworms. However, scientists have long speculated that Pikaia was a chordate because it appeared to have a very primitive notochord – a flexible rod found in the embryos of all chordates – which goes on to make up part of the backbone in vertebrates.

‘The discovery of myomeres is the smoking gun that we have long been seeking,’ said the study’s lead author, Professor Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge. ‘Now with myomeres, a nerve chord, a notochord and a vascular system all identified, this study clearly places Pikaia as the planet’s most primitive chordate. So, next time we put the family photograph on the mantle-piece, there in the background will be Pikaia.’

‘Our analysis provides evidence that Pikaia indeed had a notochord,’ said co-author, Jean-Bernard Caron, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto and curator of invertebrate palaeontology at the ROM. A nerve cord and vascular system were also identified in the study. ‘But the real excitement was finding extensive myomeres, the blocks of skeletal muscle tissue that are characteristic of chordates.’

Averaging about five centimetres in length, Pikaia was a sideways-flattened, somewhat eel-like animal. The flattened body is divided into a series of segmented muscle blocks seen as S-shaped lines that lie on either side of the notochord which runs along most, if not all of the body length. It likely swam above the sea floor by moving its body in a series of side-to-side curves.

The Burgess Shale is famous for its weird and wonderful fossils of marine organisms. The site provides vital information about evolution during the Cambrian explosion, a period over half a billion years ago that was characterized by the appearance of a vast diversity of animals over a short period of time.

The study examined 114 Pikaia fossils using a range of imagery techniques, including scanning electron microscopy, to reveal fine details. The bulk of the specimens are held in trust for Parks Canada at the ROM while nearly all the remainder are housed in the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

‘It’s very humbling to know that swans, snakes, bears, zebras and, incredibly, humans all share a deep history with this tiny creature no longer than my thumb,’ said Caron.

‘Fossils of primitive chordates are incredibly rare. With no backbones or other mineralized elements, Pikaia would stand no chance of preservation in normal conditions outside exceptional sites like the Burgess Shale. We hope that, with continuing explorations and field work studies there, other species will be discovered allowing us to refine our understanding of the early history of our own group.’

The confirmation of Pikaia as a chordate is the latest in a recent string of Burgess Shale discoveries. In November 2011, evidence of fossilized tracks of a large predator known as Tegopelte were published, and in January 2012 a bizarre tulip-shaped creature named Siphusauctum was described for the very first time.

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Exposure of micronutrients prior to pregnancy has been associated with gene modifications in offspring

The offspring of women who were given micronutrient supplements (minerals needed in small quantities, such as iron, iodine and vitamin A) before they became pregnant had gene modifications at birth as well as when they were tested at nine months.

The changes to the genes, called methylation, have previously been associated with the development of the immune system, although this study did not provide direct evidence that the activity of these genes has changed. The research, funded by the BBSRC, was published on 22 February in the journal Human Molecular Genetics in advance online publication (DOI number DDS026).

Professor Nabeel Affara, lead author of the study from the University of Cambridge, said: ‘The mechanism by which micronutrients influence methylation changes is still to be worked out, but it is known from other work that the genes of the immune system undergo such changes as immune function develops, particularly in early postnatal stages and early childhood.

‘These changes are part of the normal development of the immune system provided adequate nutrition is available. Where this is not the case, different patterns of methylation may occur, altering the activity of key genes and therefore potentially the effectiveness of the immune system. The result is likely to be reduced ability to fight infection and hence susceptibility to infectious diseases.’

The study used DNA samples from a Medical Research Council (MRC) micronutrient supplementation trial where women attempting to get pregnant are given either a cocktail of micronutrients or a placebo until pregnancy is confirmed (approximately an eight weeks period).

The research was conducted in The Gambia where there is seasonal variation in the availability of micronutrients with an alternation between the dry season (when they harvest and food is plentiful) and the wet season (when there is less food available and therefore poorer nutrition). Individuals born in the wet, nutritionally poor season have been found to be more susceptible to infection.

Professor Affara added: ‘This has huge public health implications for regions of the world where food security is an issue. If we have an improved understanding of what nutrition is important and the mechanisms by which this important environmental factor interacts with gene function, we can target nutritional intervention to improve health in later life.’

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Pushing science to its limits

Cambridge Science Festival is hoping to break new boundaries in celebration of London 2012 as it asks ‘How fast can Usain Bolt run?’ and takes ‘A mathematical look at the Olympics’.

Bookings for the Festival, which takes place from 12–25 March 2012, opened on 7 February, with more than 180 mostly free events for the public to choose from. Organisers are hoping for a record turnout after last year’s total of 35,000 visitors.

With the theme of ‘breaking boundaries’, the Festival will focus on the unceasing progress of science, technology, engineering and mathematics with a programme of events to suit children and adults of all tastes and ages.

There will also be a special sub-section of events with a special Olympics and Paralympics theme.

And for the first time, the Festival will have a guest director; comedian, actor and author Robin Ince – co-host of the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage with Professor Brian Cox.

Ince will join Alan Moore and other guests on 16 March in the ‘Bad Science Book Club’ where the panel will discuss the odd, arcane and downright terrible science literature, as well as ‘Happiness Through Science’ on the Festival’s flagship family day (Saturday 18 March), where he asks whether it’s possible to be happy and rational at the same time.

Other highlights include evening lectures on topics as diverse as ‘The musical brain’, ‘Plants for the future’ and ‘Great discoveries in medicine’.

For more information including the latest event updates and to request a copy of the programme please visit the University of Cambridge website.

Other highlights of the 2012 Cambridge Science Festival include:

The musical brain
Gert-Jan de Haas, neuropsychologist and musician, takes us on a journey through the musical brain via dancing parrots, snails, a cup of tea and important principle of ‘not not’. He explains how what is known about general brain functions can be applied to learning and performing music and why it is that the musical brain really knows nothing!

Understanding excess
Compulsive acts or habits which are hard to stop occur in people with OCD and other disorders such as autism or substance abuse disorder. What is the neurobiological basis for them and how can they best be treated? Speakers include Professor Barbara Sahakian, Trevor Robbins and Naomi Fineberg.

On the shoulders of Eastern giants: forgotten contribution of medieval physicists
We learn at school that Isaac Newton is the father of modern optics and that Copernicus heralded the birth of astronomy. But what is the debt these men owe to the physicists and astronomers of the medieval Islamic Empire? Men such as Ibn al-Haytham, Avicenna and Ibn al-Shatir. In this lecture Jim Al-Khalili will tell the story of these fascinating characters.

Eruptions that shook the world
Clive Oppenheimer explores geological, historical and archaeological records to ask how volcanic eruptions have shaped the trajectory of human society and considers how we can prepare ourselves for future catastrophes.

How fast can Usain Bolt run?
How could Usain Bolt improve his world 100 meters sprint record significantly without improving his speed? How fast should he be able to run? Professor John Barrow FRS answers these and other questions in this talk, which also looks at the mechanics of sprinting and the effects of wind assistance, timing, accuracy and altitude on sprint time.

The final push: preparing an athlete for an Olympic or Paralympic Games
Paralympic athlete Dan Gordon explores the preparation strategies employed by athletes in the final months leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games in order to optimise performance. We will consider physiological and psychological athlete preparation and the role of ‘Secret Squirrels’.

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Here comes the sun…

New solar cells could increase the maximum efficiency of solar panels by over 25%, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge.

Scientists from the Cavendish Laboratory, the University’s Department of Physics, have developed a novel type of solar cell which could harvest energy from the sun much more efficiently than traditional designs. The research, published in the journal NanoLetters, could dramatically improve the amount of useful energy created by solar panels.

Solar panels work by absorbing energy from particles of light, called photons, which then generate electrons to create electricity. Traditional solar cells are only capable of capturing part of the light from the sun and much of the energy of the absorbed light, particularly of the blue photons, is lost as heat. This inability to extract the full energy of all of the different colours of light at once means that traditional solar cells are incapable of converting more than 34% of the available sunlight into electrical power.

The Cambridge team led by Professor Neil Greenham and Professor Sir Richard Friend has developed a hybrid cell which absorbs red light and harnesses the extra energy of blue light to boost the electrical current. Typically, a solar cell generates a single electron for each photon captured. However, by adding pentacene, an organic semiconductor, the solar cells can generate two electrons for every photon from the blue light spectrum. This could enable the cells to capture 44% of the incoming solar energy.

Bruno Ehrler, the lead author on the paper, said: ‘Organic and hybrid solar cells have an advantage over current silicon-based technology because they can be produced in large quantities at low cost by roll-to-roll printing. However, much of the cost of a solar power plant is in the land, labour, and installation hardware. As a result, even if organic solar panels are less expensive, we need to improve their efficiency to make them competitive. Otherwise, it’d be like buying a cheap painting, only to find out you need an expensive frame.’

Mark Wilson, another author on the paper, said: ‘I think it’s very important that we move towards sustainable sources of energy, and it’s exciting to help explore possible solutions.’

Dr Akshay Rao, co-author on the paper noted: ‘This is just the first step towards a new generation of solar cells and we are very excited to be a part of this effort.’

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

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University Library’s greatest treasures on show

An unpublished Rupert Brooke poem will sit alongside some of Cambridge University Library’s greatest treasures when a free exhibition of highlights from its priceless collections opens to the public on 18 January.

Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors and their Books celebrates some of the men and women who have donated their libraries to Cambridge University over the past 400 years, and the diverse and extraordinary treasures they owned. It brings together the cream of 10 exemplary collections encompassing more than a millennium of the written and printed word.

The curators of Shelf Lives had plenty of material to choose from; Cambridge University Library is home to more than eight million items – stored on mile after mile of shelving inside the iconic Giles Gilbert Scott building.

Star exhibits include a hand-coloured copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 (a chronicle of world history and one of the most magnificent printed books of the fifteenth century, with more than 1,800 woodcuts) presented by Archbishop Matthew Parker; Napoleon Bonaparte’s copy of Montaigne’s Essais from his library in exile on St Helena; an illuminated ninth-century Mercian prayer-book known as the Book of Cerne (c. 820-840); and the second oldest surviving copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede (673/4-735) – the celebrated ‘Moore Bede’.

A velvet-bound sermon book belonging to Queen Elizabeth I and embroidered with her coat of arms will share the exhibition space with handwritten manuscripts by John Donne and Virginia Woolf and, perhaps more unusually, trench journals (magazines produced by troops, for troops) and military money from the Austrian-occupied zone of Italy – part of the War Reserve Collection, an extraordinary gathering of at least 10,000 pieces of First World War ephemera.

University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: ‘Cambridge University Library is one of the largest accumulations of books and manuscripts in Europe, and one of the most important in the world. Its holdings, though, are not a single, uniform entity, but consist of a great variety of different collections which over the centuries have come to be housed under one roof and now enrich the national heritage.’

John Wells, Exhibition Curator, explained: ‘For this exhibition, 10 different curators have chosen 10 different collectors, whose lives span the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. It really was very difficult to narrow down the field. We had an initial long-list of 20 to 30 collections, all outstanding, which could all have justified a place in the exhibition. In fact, it would have been possible to replace almost every item in the exhibition with something of similar importance.

The Library’s music collections are represented by the Haydn collection of Marion Margaret Scott (1877–1953), a versatile and progressive woman known for several significant achievements in male-dominated fields.

Fellow exhibition curator Ed Potten said: ‘Shelf Lives isn’t just about the books, it’s about the collectors themselves and the history of collecting. There’s a social context to this and interesting questions about why collecting was – and still is – so significant to people. It’s fascinating to uncover how and why people acquire things. In some cases it is an obsession, and in others an expression of philanthropy.’

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Test your memory

On Tuesday 10 January, researchers at the University of Cambridge launched what could be the world’s biggest ever memory experiment.

Yasemin Yazar, Dr Zara Bergström and Dr Jon Simons from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology, along with Dr Charles Fernyhough from Durham University, have teamed up with the Guardian to run an online experiment for members of the public to test their memory abilities and find out how they stack up against their friends.

‘We’re hoping that thousands of people from all walks of life, and from all over the world, will go to the website and take part,’ said Dr Simons, who is leading the research. Anybody can participate by visiting the Guardian website, and test their memory abilities for free from the comfort of their own homes.

The experiment, which will take just a few minutes to complete, investigates features of long-term memory (our ability to remember events we have experienced). Participants will study words presented on the screen and different aspects of their memory for the words will be assessed. All data will be collected anonymously and participants will be able to find out how their memory scores compare to those obtained by previous participants. They will also be able, should they wish, to share their score with friends via Facebook or Twitter.

‘With this experiment, we aim to understand how it is that we’re typically able to remember experiences that may be quite similar to one another without getting them confused. Related events often share features but, usually, we’re pretty good at distinguishing those events from each other. Our experiment is designed to study the impact of overlapping memory features on remembering, so errors on the task are entirely normal and nothing to be worried about!’ said Dr Simons.

‘There’s so much we still have to learn about how we remember the things we see,’ said Dr Simons. ‘Hopefully, taking part in the experiment will be interesting and fun for participants, but in addition, the anonymous results we obtain will contribute a large amount of useful data to our research and will, we hope, provide a real advance in our knowledge about memory.’

The experiment is part of the Guardian’s Memory Week, which culminates in a free guide, ‘Make the most of your memory’, available with the Guardian newspaper on Saturday 14 January, which includes articles and memory tips from Dr Simons, Dr Fernyhough and a number of other memory experts.

‘Remembering is one of the most fascinating and complex functions that our minds perform,’ said Dr Fernyhough. ‘With this study we hope to shed further light on how the brain fits together the different bits of information that go to make up a memory.’

Please note that although this test will help further our understanding in this area of research, it is not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for memory problems.

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Hopes for reversing age-associated effects in MS patients

New research highlights the possibility of reversing ageing in the central nervous system for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients. The study was published on 6 January, in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

As we get older, our bodies’ ability to regenerate decreases. This is not only true for our skin (which is evident in the wrinkles that develop as we age) but also true for other tissues in the body, including the regenerative processes in the brain. For diseases which often span several decades and are affected by regenerative processes, such as multiple sclerosis, this can have massive implications.

In multiple sclerosis, the insulating layers that protect nerve fibres in the brain, known as myelin sheaths, become damaged. The loss of myelin in the brain prevents nerve fibres from sending signals properly and will eventually lead to the loss of the nerve fibre itself. However, early in the disease, a regenerative process, or remyelination, occurs and the myelin sheaths are restored. Unfortunately, as people with MS age, remyelination decreases significantly, resulting in more nerve fibres being permanently lost.

However, a new study in mice shows that the age-associated decline in the regeneration of the nerve’s myelin sheath, or remyelination, is reversible. The proof of principle study demonstrates that when old mice are exposed to the inflammatory cells (called monocytes) from young mice, the ageing remyelination process can be reversed.

Professor Robin Franklin, Director of the MS Society’s Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘What we have shown in our study, carried out in collaboration with Dr Amy Wagers and colleagues at Harvard University, is that the age-associated decline in remyelination is reversible. We found that remyelination in old adult mice can be made to work as efficiently as it does in young adult mice.

‘For individuals with MS, this means that in theory regenerative therapies will work throughout the duration of the disease. Specifically, it means that remyelination therapies do not need to be based on stem cell transplantation since the stem cells already present in the brain and spinal cord can be made to regenerate myelin – regardless of the patient’s age.’

MS affects approximately 100,000 people in the United Kingdom, 400,000 in the United States and several million worldwide. Symptoms of the disease can include the loss of physical skills, sensation, vision, bladder control, and intellectual abilities.

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New Cambridge study measures countries’ well-being

At the heart of any country’s progress lies the well-being of its people. How to accurately and effectively determine well-being is the subject of a recent study at the University of Cambridge.

‘Flourishing across Europe’ scored 23 European countries across 10 distinct elements that define well-being. The study is significant as it employs an objective, multi-dimensional technique that highlights particular areas of strength or weakness for each nation.

The study’s lead author, Professor Felicia Huppert of the University of Cambridge, said: ‘The key message is that the UK government, like many around the world, now recognises that economic measures such as GDP do not provide adequate information about a society’s progress. Governments need also to evaluate how citizens experience their lives, that is to measure their well-being.’

The study, by Professor Huppert, Director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge and technical advisor for the ‘Measuring National Well-being’ initiative, and PhD student Timothy So, first set out to identify well-being at the opposite end of the spectrum to the common mental disorders: depression and anxiety. By examining internationally agreed criteria for depression and anxiety, and defining the opposite of each symptom, the study sought to identify the features of positive well-being that set the operational definition of ‘Flourishing’.

The ten features that define Flourishing are: competence, emotional stability, engagement, meaning, optimism, positive emotion, positive relationships, resilience, self-esteem and vitality. The definition of Flourishing was then applied to 43,000 respondents from 23 countries which participated in the European Social Survey in 2006/2007.

Within the three regions of Europe, the study shows remarkable constancy. Nordic countries are ranked first and Eastern European countries third on all but one feature – vitality (or energy) where Eastern European countries have the highest ranking. Southern/Western European countries are ranked second in all 10 features.

At the country level, some nations showed consistently high (Denmark) or low (Portugal, Slovakia) rankings, while others showed very marked variability in their rankings. The UK was near the middle in overall well-being as well as in almost every feature, leaving plenty of room for improvement.

France had extremely high and low scores. France was highest on engagement but had the lowest result on self-esteem and is in the bottom two or three on optimism and positive relationships. These were surprising results, given the country’s wealth, short working hours, early retirement age and commitment to leisure activities. Spain and Bulgaria also showed scores that were extremely high in one area, and very low in others.

The countries with the highest well-being tended to be those with greater wealth, low income inequality, high employment and high education. This was reflected in the Nordic countries that performed generally well in the study.

Implications of this study are that a multi-dimensional approach can provide a deeper understanding of well-being than single indicator approaches, such as measures of happiness or life satisfaction, which have been widely used to date. In the same way that improving the GDP involves identifying the specific components of the GDP, which need adjusting, so too improving well-being requires identifying the specific components of well-being which could benefit from policy interventions.

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Cambridge gives Newton papers to the world

Isaac Newton’s own annotated copy of his Principia Mathematica is among his notebooks and manuscripts being made available online by Cambridge University Library.

The Library holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of the scientific works of Isaac Newton (1642–1727), described by many as the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His works launch the new Cambridge Digital Library.

The project aims to make Cambridge a digital library for the world and will move on from Newton to some of the University Library’s other world-class collections in the realms of science and faith. These include the archive of the celebrated Board of Longitude and the papers of Charles Darwin.

University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: ‘Over the course of six centuries Cambridge University Library’s collections have grown from a few dozen volumes into one of the world’s great libraries, with an extraordinary accumulation of books, maps, manuscripts and journals. These cover every conceivable aspect of human endeavour, spanning most of the world’s cultural traditions.’

Launching the website with more than 4,000 pages of its most important Newton material, the University Library will upload thousands of further pages over the next few months until almost all of its Newton collection is available to view and download anywhere in the world.

The digitisation of the Newton Papers and development of the sophisticated technical infrastructure that will underpin the new digital library was made possible by a £1.5m lead gift from the Polonsky Foundation in June 2010. This gift was one of the earliest and largest that the Foundation has given as part of its International Digitisation Project, which aims to make the world’s intellectual treasures freely accessible to a global audience.

Dr Leonard Polonsky said: ‘I am delighted to have been able to play a part in making the Newton collection available to the world and look forward to viewing the many other exciting collections the Library is preparing.’

Dr Polonsky’s landmark benefaction provides a strong basis for attracting further support for this ambitious and important initiative at Cambridge.

In opening up Newton’s papers to the eyes of the world, the newly digitised archive reveals that not all his peers would have approved of his output being shared quite so openly.

Several of the manuscripts in the collection contain the handwritten line ‘not fit to be printed’, scrawled by Thomas Pellet, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had been asked to go through Newton’s papers after his death and decide which ones should be published.

Grant Young, Digitisation Manager at the Library, said: ‘We are launching our collections to the world with perhaps some of the most important papers and documents in the history of science.

‘In addition to his Principia and notebooks, we’ve included his “Waste Book” – a very large notebook Newton inherited from his stepfather and filled with notes and calculations when he was forced to leave his studies in Cambridge during the Great Plague. With plenty of time and paper to hand, Newton was able to make significant breakthroughs, particularly in his understanding of calculus.

‘Anyone, wherever they are, can see at the click of a mouse how Newton worked and how he went about developing his theories and experiments. Newton’s copy of his Principia shows how methodically he worked through his text; marking alterations, crossing out and annotating his work in preparation for the second edition. Before today, anyone who wanted to see these things had to come to Cambridge. Now we’re bringing Cambridge University Library to the world.’

For the digital launch of the Newton Papers, Cambridge University Library has been aided by JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) who awarded a grant to the library and the Newton Project at the University of Sussex for the Windows on Genius project.

This project has enabled the linking of Cambridge University Library’s high-resolution facsimiles with transcriptions produced by the Newton Project. Researchers, students and interested members of the public are now able to zoom in to each page to explore the text in incredible detail and make use of the transcriptions to understand Newton’s mind – and handwriting.

Work on the digital library project began in 2010, with the Newton collection being photographed over the summer of 2011. At full speed, 200 pages were captured each day. However, some painstaking conservation work had to be undertaken on several of the manuscripts and notebooks before they were considered robust enough to be digitised.

Added Jarvis: ‘With great collections comes a responsibility to make these as accessible as we can. Now, through the use of new technologies and with vital support from the Polonsky Foundation and bodies such as the JISC, we are able to open up our collections in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Wherever possible we will seek to enhance our digital collections by aligning them with scholarly research. Our initial collection, the Newton Papers, is a good example.

‘Through our collaboration with the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, we’ve been able to provide superb transcriptions alongside the images of many of Newton’s manuscripts.’

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3pm slump? Why a sugar rush may not be the answer

A new study has found that protein and not sugar activates the cells responsible for keeping us awake and burning calories. The research, published in the 17 November issue of the scientific journal Neuron, has implications for understanding obesity and sleep disorders.

Wakefulness and energy expenditure rely on ‘orexin cells’, which secrete a stimulant called orexin/hypocretin in the brain. Reduced activity in these unique cells results in narcolepsy and has been linked to weight gain.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge compared actions of different nutrients on orexin cells. They found that amino acids – nutrients found in proteins such as egg whites – stimulate orexin neurons much more than other nutrients.

‘Sleep patterns, health, and body weight are intertwined. Shift work, as well as poor diet, can lead to obesity,’ said lead researcher Dr Denis Burdakov of the Department of Pharmacology and Institute of Metabolic Science. ‘Electrical impulses emitted by orexin cells stimulate wakefulness and tell the body to burn calories. We wondered whether dietary nutrients alter those impulses.’

To explore this, the scientists highlighted the orexin cells (which are scarce and difficult to find) with genetically targeted fluorescence in mouse brains. They then introduced different nutrients, such as amino acid mixtures similar to egg whites, while tracking orexin cell impulses.

They discovered that amino acids stimulate orexin cells. Previous work by the group found that glucose blocks orexin cells (which was cited as a reason for after-meal sleepiness), and so the researchers also looked at interactions between sugar and protein. They found that amino acids stop glucose from blocking orexin cells (in other words, protein negated the effects of sugar on the cells).

These findings may shed light on previously unexplained observations showing that protein meals can make people feel less calm and more alert than carbohydrate meals.

‘What is exciting is to have a rational way to “tune” select brain cells to be more or less active by deciding what food to eat,’ Dr Burdakov said. ‘Not all brain cells are simply turned on by all nutrients, dietary composition is critical.

‘To combat obesity and insomnia in today’s society, we need more information on how diet affects sleep and appetite cells. For now, research suggests that if you have a choice between jam on toast, or egg whites on toast, go for the latter! Even though the two may contain the same number of calories, having a bit of protein will tell the body to burn more calories out of those consumed.’

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Ancient manuscripts that hold important clues to India’s intellectual and religious traditions to be focus of a new study

A major exercise in ‘linguistic archaeology’ has set out to complete a comprehensive survey of Cambridge University Library’s South Asian manuscript collection, which includes the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript known worldwide.

Written on now-fragile birch bark, palm leaf and paper, the 2,000 manuscripts in the collection express centuries-old South Asian thinking on religion, philosophy, astronomy, grammar, law and poetry.

The project, which is led by Sanskrit-specialists Dr Vincenzo Vergiani and Dr Eivind Kahrs and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, will study and catalogue each of the manuscripts, placing them in their broader historical context. Most of the holdings will also be digitised by the Library and made available through the Library’s new online digital library.

‘In a world that seems increasingly small, every artefact documenting the history of ancient civilisations has become part of a global heritage to be carefully preserved and studied,’ explained Dr Vergiani, who is in the University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. ‘Among such artefacts, manuscripts occupy a distinctive place – they speak to us with the actual words of long-gone men and women, bringing their beliefs, ideas and sensibilities to life.’

He added: ‘One reason this collection is so important is because of the age of many of the manuscripts. In the heat and humidity of India, materials deteriorate quickly and manuscripts needed to be copied again and again. As a result, many of the early Indian texts no longer exist.’

In fact, some of the oldest holdings of the Library’s South Asian collection were discovered not in India but in Nepal, where the climate is more temperate. In the 1870s, Dr Daniel Wright, surgeon of the British Residency in Kathmandu, rescued the now-priceless cultural and historical artefacts from a disused temple, where they had survived largely by chance.

An early catalogue of part of the collection in 1883 found among its treasures a 10th-century Buddhist Sanskrit manuscript from India – the oldest dated and illustrated Sanskrit manuscript known worldwide.

More than half of the collection is in Sanskrit, a language that has dominated the literary culture of pre-modern South Asia for almost three millennia. Its earliest attestations are found in the Vedic hymns (texts that are still central to Hinduism), dating from the end of the second millennium BC.

‘The word Sanskrit means refined or perfected. From a very early stage, its speakers were obsessed with handing down their sacred texts intact,’ said Dr Vergiani. ‘Out of this developed an attention to how the language works. A grammatical tradition arose that produced, around the 4th century BC, the work of Pāṇini, an amazing intellectual achievement and arguably the beginning of linguistics worldwide, which made the language constant, stable and transmissible.’

It is this robustness that Dr Vergiani believes explains how the language became so prevalent across South Asia – a situation that has been likened to the spread of Latin across Europe: ‘It was used by religious figures and royalty, scholars and scientists, administrators and artists. Well into modern times, Sanskritic culture was very much alive throughout India, and the language is still used by a number of intellectuals and religious figures today.’

The widespread use of Sanskrit as the language of power and communication across South Asia makes the collection at the Library so significant. The manuscripts, written in centuries that spanned momentous political and economic change, are an invaluable and untapped source for understanding the pre-colonial past of South Asia, and therefore its present.

By combining traditional philological methods with advanced information technology, the project will make these extraordinary documents available in new ways, helping to further research on the intellectual traditions, religious cults, literature and political ideas of South Asia.

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Unconscious language learning

When linguists talk about unconscious or implicit language learning, they don’t mean learning while you sleep. Rather, they are talking about one of the most intriguing of all mental phenomena: the ability to learn the complex and subtle regularities that underlie a language without even realising.

For children, such ‘implicit’ language learning seems to happen spontaneously in the first few years of life; yet, in adulthood, learning a second language is generally far from effortless and has varied success.

So marked is the difference between first- and second-language learning – at least when it takes the form of classroom learning – it might suggest that implicit learning makes no significant contribution to learning a second language. Or it may indicate that typical foreign language teaching doesn’t take full advantage of the process.

The challenge that faces linguists is how to test whether implicit learning is taking place. How can you differentiate between a person consciously recognising a certain pattern or rule in the language they are learning and the same person unconsciously knowing that something sounds right simply because their brain has judged it to be right?

The new approach to solving the puzzle taken by Dr John Williams at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics and his collaborator, Dr Janny Leung from the University of Hong Kong, has been to invent an artificial language. Participants were tested to see whether they correctly acquired, over periods as short as one hour, an understanding of patterns embedded within the artificial language.

An example of their technique is to teach participants four novel forms of the word ‘the’ (gi, ro, ul and ne), telling them that the forms encode a certain meaningful dimension (for example gi and ro should be used for describing near objects, ul and ne for far objects). The aim is to see if the participants can spontaneously pick up a correlation with another, hidden, meaning (for example that gi and ul should be used with animate nouns and ro and ne with inanimate nouns). The novel forms are embedded in English phrases such as ‘I was terrified when I turned around and saw gi lion right behind me’.

Do they pick up on the concealed pattern when tested? ‘The answer is yes,’ said Dr Williams, whose research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. ‘We found significantly above-chance selection of sentence constructions that were ‘grammatically correct’ according to the hidden pattern. Yet, the participants had no awareness of what they had learned or how. Moreover, we were able to show learning of the same material by native speakers of two typologically very different languages, English and Cantonese.’

Interestingly, picking up the hidden pattern unconsciously doesn’t always happen – if, for instance, the hidden pattern is linguistically unnatural, such as a correlation with whether an object makes a sound or not. ‘One explanation could be that certain patterns are more accessible to language learning processes than others. Perhaps our brains are built equipped to expect certain patterns, or perhaps they process some patterns better than others,’ he added.

The research provides a window onto unconscious learning processes in the mind and highlights an important element that has practical implications for language teaching. In each test, the learner’s attention was directed to the part of the sentence that contained the hidden pattern. By directing attention, it seems that other elements of the sentence construction are picked up unconsciously.

‘In a teaching situation, merely teaching the rules of a language may not be the only answer,’ explained Dr Williams. ‘Instead, using tasks that focus attention on the relevant grammatical forms in language could help learners access unconscious learning pathways in the brain. This would greatly enhance the speed of acquisition of a second language.’

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Mental time-travel may occur in a new group of birds

Certain types of birds may track army ant swarms using sophisticated memory and the ability to plan for the future.

Some tropical birds collect their prey at army ant raids, where massive swarms of ants sweep through the forest and drive out insects. The behaviour of interest is called bivouac checking; it allows these birds to track the cyclical raid activity of army ant colonies.

Army ants have regular alternating periods of high and low raiding activity, and birds visit the ants’ temporary nest sites (bivouacs) to determine which colonies are raiding on a given day.

The new findings published on 14 October 2011, in the journal Behavioural Ecology, suggest that bivouac checking allows birds to keep track of multiple army ant colonies, keeping account of which colonies are in periods of high-raiding activity while avoiding colonies with low-raiding activity.

Recent research has discovered that birds check army ant bivouacs at the end of the day, after they have fed at the raid. They may use the information about the army ant nest location the next day to find the ants again, thus accessing a past memory (the nest location) to fulfil a future need (bird will be hungry tomorrow), also known as ‘mental time-travel’.

Two of the authors of the study Corina Logan of the University of Cambridge, and Sean O’Donnell of the University of Washington, observed bivouac checking behaviour in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Mental time-travel consists of two elements: the ability to remember past events and the ability to anticipate and plan for future events. It has traditionally been considered a quality unique to humans. However, ever since Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge discovered that scrub jays (a species of large-brained crow) can remember the past and plan for the future, there have been a suite of studies showing evidence of this ability in other species as well. We now know that corvids (birds in the crow family), some primates, and possibly rats have all shown the ability to remember the past and plan for the future.

Corina Logan, said: ‘We suspect that future planning could be involved in bivouac-checking bird behaviour because the birds were checking bivouacs when they were not hungry, a behaviour that does not make sense until the next morning upon return to the bivouac when the bird finds the ants raiding again and encounters its next meal – a delayed benefit.’

Until recently, it has been difficult to find model systems for studying mental time travel in an ecologically relevant way. ‘The fact that we might have happened on a whole new system for exploring these capacities is quite exciting,’ added Corina Logan.

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The meaning of emoticons

The emoticons used on Twitter are a language in themselves and are taking on new and often surprising meanings of their own, according to new research.

Alex Davies, a Gates scholar at the University of Cambridge, has created a visual map of the words associated with Twitter emoticons. It’s not just the usual smiley and sad face emoticons whose meaning is fairly obvious and associated with words such as birthday, weekend and Friday and hospital, cold, stomach and pain respectively.

Other emoticons include:

^_^ This is associated with more immediate pleasures such as food and holidays. Words linked to it include shopping, lunch, dinner and chocolate. It is more associated with Asian Tweeters, but has begun to be used more in the West.

<3 This emoticon, which looks like a heart on its side, is associated with words such as love, music, amazing, proud, beautiful, thankful, Jesus and Justin.

:/ This generally denotes a half-awake, slightly annoyed state, associated with words such as shift, sleeping, busy, class and Monday.

-_- This emoticon is indicative of frustration and is associated with words such as dumb and lame.

Davies says all the emoticons he has analysed have been around for at least as long as the Internet has been in existence, but some are less prevalent than others. Some were used exclusively in Asia, but have now spread to the West, and being adopted by particular groups.

Davies, who is studying for a PhD in Engineering with a focus on statistical modelling, says: ‘The creation of new emoticons has essentially stopped, but the context and usage of existing ones is constantly evolving. Take for example Asian style emoticons, such as ^_^ (happy) and -_- (sad).

‘Initially these were used almost exclusively by Asian online communities, but have slowly been adopted by different Western sub-cultures and have taken on subtly different meanings in these contexts. One way to visualise this usage is to visualise the words that are strongly associated with these emoticons. What is interesting is that two emoticons that essentially represent the same sentiment, such as :) and ^_^, actually differ substantially in how they are used, and we can see this in the images of the words.’

Davies has also published a list of the happiness/sadness of 7,500 common words on Twitter after he was approached at an international conference about his previous work on creating a Twitter map of happiness. He was asked if he could release a list of words so people could easily create systems that use sentiment analysis of Twitter.

Davies says: ‘Twitter contains a wealth of sentiment information which researchers and businesses are very interested to explore so they can assess the changing global mood on different issues in real time and make predictions based on this.’

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Golden touch makes low-temperature graphene production a reality

A method which more than halves the temperature at which high-quality graphene can be produced has been pioneered by researchers.

The technique opens up new opportunities for the use of graphene, which is widely regarded as a potential ‘wonder substance’ for the 21st century.

The researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering added a very small amount of gold to the surface of a nickel film, on which the graphene was then grown. The resulting alloy meant that they were able to grow graphene at 450ºC as opposed to the 1,000ºC that is normally required.

The team, which was led by Robert Weatherup and Bernhard Bayer in the Department’s Hofmann research group, was also able to find out more about how graphene forms during this process.

‘Only once we’d developed a detailed picture of how the graphene was growing were we able to start tuning that growth and rationally engineering the catalyst – the nickel – to improve it,’ Weatherup said. ‘Understanding this is interesting from a scientific point of view, but using this knowledge to improve the growth process has been the really useful outcome of our work.’

Graphene is a microscopically thin substance – essentially existing in only two dimensions. It consists of a single, atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms, arranged in a hexagonal lattice.

What makes it exciting for scientists is its remarkable range of properties. Graphene is very strong, transparent and highly conductive. This means that it could be used for a whole range of applications, including flexible electronics that can be worn by the user, fast broadband, high-performance computing and lightweight components for planes and other machines.

For any of these possibilities to be realised, a reliable method for producing high-quality graphene is needed. The best option to date has involved scientists using chemical vapour deposition. In this process, a catalyst film – in some cases nickel, in others copper – is exposed to a carbon-containing gas at very high temperatures. Graphene then assembles on the surface of the film.

Until now, temperatures of about 1,000ºC were needed for the graphene to form. This poses a problem, because the high-growth temperatures would severely damage many of the materials that are used in common manufacturing electronics, which means that the graphene cannot be directly integrated into the circuits that would then be used in electronic products.

Weatherup and Bayer’s use of nickel films with a small amount of gold (less than 1%) opens up this possibility by reducing the growth temperature to 450º. The alloy also reduces the number of places where graphene grows on the film, because the gold blocks graphene growth.

This means that as each graphene flake emerges it grows larger and for longer before it joins with another flake. Because electrons travelling through the graphene are therefore not disturbed by joins between flakes as often, the conductivity of the graphene is improved. The result is graphene that can be produced at a drastically reduced temperature, but is still of the very high quality that would be needed for future applications.

Specialist techniques were also employed during the process to ‘sense’ the atom-thick layer of graphene as it grew. The researchers were able to show definitively that graphene growth does not just occur when the substance cools down (as some academics had previously thought), and that its growth is not just affected by the surface of the catalyst film, but by a region of the film underneath.

Researchers widely predict that it is only a matter of time before graphene moves from the domain of scientific research and into industry. For now, however, commercial development is still some way off.

‘We would ideally like to produce graphene directly on to an insulating substrate, as at present the alloy has to be removed after growth for graphene to be used in applications,’ Weatherup said. ‘The problem is that insulators tend to be less good at converting carbon-containing gases into high-quality graphene.’

‘Graphene growth is still a very young field, but it’s moving incredibly fast. Using alloying of the catalyst, as we have here, is a brand new approach in improving the process and we expect further investigation of this will likely lead to improved graphene production, and perhaps at even lower temperatures.’

The findings are reported in the new issue of the academic journal Nano-letters.

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Researchers develop new test for children with vision loss

Technology developed at the University of Cambridge to detect peripheral visual field loss in young children will enable the earlier detection of brain tumours, potentially saving sight and lives.

Dr Louise Allen, a paediatric ophthalmologist at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Adar Pelah, an electronics engineer at the University of York, have developed a specialised visual field test system to detect peripheral vision defects, called KidzEyez.

Peripheral visual field loss in children can result from prematurity, eye disorders such as retinal dystrophy, brain conditions such as cerebral palsy, neurosurgery, drug therapy, or brain tumours.

Most children with brain tumours will develop visual field loss due to the tumour’s interference with the visual pathway, which stretches from the optic nerve at the very front of the brain to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. Unfortunately, visual field loss in young children is currently very difficult to assess; timely recognition could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of its cause, resulting in the prevention of severe visual impairment, improved outcomes and more individualised support.

Current techniques for measuring the peripheral visual field require the subject to sit still and maintain a steady gaze at a light target for as long as ten minutes. These tests can be difficult enough for an adult to perform, let alone a young child.

The clinical need for a perimeter suitable for use in young children led Dr Allen and Dr Pelah to develop a system which is child-friendly, fast, but accurate in detecting peripheral visual field loss.

Using the KidzEyez system, the child watches a central cartoon on a video screen, while their natural looking response to a target appearing in different locations of the visual periphery is monitored remotely using a small camera located on the video screen. If the target falls within the intact visual field, the child will reflexively look at the target; if the target falls within a blind area, no response will be seen.

‘KidzEyez is the first perimeter specifically designed for young children,’ said Dr Allen. ‘Children find the testing fun and, by improving our detection and management of visual pathway tumours, KidzEyez could play a major role in preserving sight and improving our support of children with visual impairment.’

A trial of the KidzEyez perimeter at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge has recently been completed on 74 children between three and 10 years of age, some with and some without predicted visual field loss. The results were compared with currently available confrontation testing, which involves the examination of the child’s response to a small toy held in their visual periphery. KidzEyez was found to have 100% sensitivity and specificity compared to confrontation testing but, importantly, gave an interpretable result in more than 70% of children whose concentration was too poor for confrontation testing.

Dr Allen will present the findings of the study at the conference of the British Isles Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus Association this week in London.

KidzEyez has been funded by Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s commercialisation group, and the University of York. Cambridge Enterprise is currently seeking commercial partners for licensing, collaboration and development of this technology.

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Drugs which increase dopamine levels in the brain could prove to be an effective tool to help cocaine abusers quit

Medicines which increase levels of the brain chemical dopamine may hold the key to helping those addicted to cocaine and amphetamines kick the habit, researchers from the University of Cambridge have found.

Unlike heroin users who may benefit from methadone when attempting to quit, there is currently no medication which has proven to be an effective tool in assisting cocaine and amphetamines users when attempting to quit.

‘Treatment for stimulant dependence is difficult and often individuals battling addiction relapse several times,’ said Dr Karen Ersche, of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) at the University of Cambridge, who led the research.

‘At the moment, the standard treatment for people dependent on cocaine and amphetamines mainly involves behavioural approaches such as counselling and cognitive-behavioural therapy – which are useful. However, our research provides important insight into the potential development of medications which could help curb the desire of those plagued with addiction, increasing the likelihood of a successful recovery.’

For the research, Dr Ersche and her Cambridge colleagues asked stimulant-dependent individuals and volunteers who do not use drugs to perform a learning task while their brains were scanned. They found that stimulant-dependent people had problems with adjusting their behaviour when one of the rules was changed – they persistently responded to the previously correct stimulus despite being repeatedly told that the rule had changed and their responses were wrong.

Dr Ersche added: ‘Their inflexible performance on the task resembles their drug-taking habits in as much as stimulant-dependent people do almost everything to take drugs even when there are negative consequences such as job loss, debts, or relationship breakups.’

The brain scans which were conducted while the patients performed the learning task showed that this persistent behaviour was directly linked with reduced activation in the brain reward system. However, when the drug users were given a medication that increased the chemical dopamine in the brain reward centre, their performance improved and their brain activation normalised.

Dr Ersche concluded: ‘However, before this medication can be used for the treatment of stimulant-dependent individuals in clinical practice, more research would be needed using multiple doses over longer period of time.’

Previous research by the same research group had found that parts of the brain reward system where cocaine exerts its actions were significantly enlarged in cocaine users, which the scientists believe renders these individuals more vulnerable to the effects of the drugs.

The study was funded and sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline and conducted within the GlaxoSmithKline Clinical Unit Cambridge and BCNI (which is co-funded by the MRC and the Wellcome Trust).

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Keeping track of reality

A structural variation in a part of the brain may explain why some people are better than others at distinguishing real events from those they might have imagined or been told about, researchers have found.

The University of Cambridge scientists found that normal variation in a fold at the front of the brain called the paracingulate sulcus (or PCS) might explain why some people are better than others at accurately remembering details of previous events – such as whether they or another person said something, or whether the event was imagined or actually occurred. The research was published on 5 October, in the Journal of Neuroscience.

This brain variation, which is present in roughly half of the normal population, is one of the last structural folds to develop before birth and for this reason varies greatly in size between individuals in the healthy population. The researchers discovered that adults whose MRI scans indicated an absence of the PCS were significantly less accurate on memory tasks than people with a prominent PCS on at least one side of the brain. Interestingly, all participants believed that they had a good memory despite one group’s memories being clearly less reliable.

Dr Jon Simons from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology and Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, who led the research, said: ‘As all those who took part were healthy adult volunteers with typical educational backgrounds and no reported history of cognitive difficulties, the memory differences we observed were quite striking. It is exciting to think that these individual differences in ability might have a basis in a simple brain folding variation.

‘Additionally, this finding might tell us something about schizophrenia, in which hallucinations are often reported whereby, for example, someone hears a voice when nobody’s there. Difficulty distinguishing real from imagined information might be an explanation for such hallucinations. For example, the person might imagine the voice but misattribute it as being real. PCS reductions have been reported in previous studies of schizophrenia, and our results are consistent with the idea that this structural variability might directly influence the functional capacity of surrounding brain areas and the cognitive abilities that they support.’

For the study, the researchers recruited 53 healthy volunteers based on their brain scans which showed either a clear presence or absence of the PCS in the left or right brain hemisphere. Participants were presented either with well-known word-pairs like ‘Laurel and Hardy’ or with the first word of a word-pair and a question mark (‘Laurel and ?’). In the latter condition, participants were instructed to imagine the second word of the word-pair. Then, either they or the experimenter was instructed to read the word-pair out aloud. After a delay, a memory test was given where participants tried to remember whether they had seen or imagined the second word of each previously-encountered word-pair, or whether they or the experimenter had read the word-pair out aloud. Participants with absence of the PCS in both brain hemispheres scored significantly worse than the others at remembering both kinds of detail.

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7 billion: The crowded planet

The world’s population is expected to hit 7 billion in October – growing to seven times the estimated one billion population of the early 1800s. As part of the University of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas, some of Europe’s leading minds will come together to discuss whether our ever-expanding population is sustainable.

The population has exploded by an extra one billion in a little over a decade (since 1999). How many people are too many? Can the planet sustain such a population or will technology and innovation save us? Is reproductive freedom a fundamental liberty? A panel of thought-leaders and scientists consisting of Professor John Guillebaud, Population Matters; Sara Parkin, Forum for the Future; Dr Rachel Murphy, University of Oxford; Fred Pearce, author of Peoplequake; and Sir Tony Wrigley, Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, will discuss these contiguous issues on Tuesday 25 October at the Mill Lane Lecture Rooms in Cambridge.

Sara Parkin, from Forum for the Future believes there cannot be ‘infinite’ growth, saying: ‘When I was born it was only 2 billion and now it’s coming up to 7 billion. And it’s a very simple equation; we’ve got a finite planet, constraining the goods and services that it can provide, while we seem to be pursuing infinite growth not just of the number of people, but a growth in what we’re consuming as well.’

But some academics believe that innovation – if given adequate support – could alleviate the pressure on our limited resources, allowing the population to grow without compromising individuals’ quality of life.

Fred Pearce, author of Peoplequake, believes that the population will soon level out and that with adequate innovation the Earth can handle the increased population: ‘We are not overpopulated in an absolute sense, we’ve got the technology for 10 billion, probably 15 billion people, to live on this planet and live good lives. What we haven’t done is developed our technology.’

There also remain questions about the rate at which the population will increase. The growth rate peaked in 1963, and some people anticipate a negative population growth in Western European countries. Is this the beginning of a trend?

Tony Wrigley, from the University of Cambridge, adds: ‘The crucial issue is whether population will continue to grow as it has for most of the post war period – very rapidly.’

Our lifestyles, including our ever-increasing appetite for goods, are also having a dramatic impact on the consumption of the world’s resources.

‘We take a piece of metal, weighing a ton, to go down to the shops and buy a loaf of bread and come home,’ says Professor Guillebaud. ‘I mean think of all the energy required to push a car a mile and then back again, just to get a small item you could have picked up on your bicycle.’

Parkin added: ‘We are not very good at long term planning, and it’s estimated we waste about 90% of the materials and energy that we mobilise for our way of life, so within that there’s a massive amount of opportunities for savings and efficiency and we just have to learn to do more with an awful lot less.’

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Serotonin levels affect the brain’s response to anger

Fluctuations of serotonin levels in the brain, which often occur when someone hasn’t eaten or is stressed, affects brain regions that enable people to regulate anger, new research from the University of Cambridge has shown.

Although reduced serotonin levels have previously been implicated in aggression, this is the first study which has shown how this chemical helps regulate behaviour in the brain as well as why some individuals may be more prone to aggression. The research findings were published on 15 September, in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

For the study, healthy volunteers’ serotonin levels were altered by manipulating their diet. On the serotonin depletion day, they were given a mixture of amino acids that lacked tryptophan, the building block for serotonin. On the placebo day, they were given the same mixture but with a normal amount of tryptophan.

The researchers then scanned the volunteers’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they viewed faces with angry, sad, and neutral expressions. Using the fMRI, they were able to measure how different brain regions reacted and communicated with one another when the volunteers viewed angry faces, as opposed to sad or neutral faces.

The research revealed that low brain serotonin made communications between specific brain regions of the emotional limbic system of the brain (a structure called the amygdala) and the frontal lobes weaker compared to those present under normal levels of serotonin. The findings suggest that when serotonin levels are low, it may be more difficult for the prefrontal cortex to control emotional responses to anger that are generated within the amygdala.

Using a personality questionnaire, they also determined which individuals have a natural tendency to behave aggressively. In these individuals, the communications between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex was even weaker following serotonin depletion. ‘Weak’ communications means that it is more difficult for the prefrontal cortex to control the feelings of anger that are generated within the amygdala when the levels of serotonin are low. As a result, those individuals who might be predisposed to aggression were the most sensitive to changes in serotonin depletion.

Dr Molly Crockett, co-first author who worked on the research while a PhD student at Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (and currently based at the University of Zurich) said: ‘We’ve known for decades that serotonin plays a key role in aggression, but it’s only very recently that we’ve had the technology to look into the brain and examine just how serotonin helps us regulate our emotional impulses. By combining a long tradition in behavioural research with new technology, we were finally able to uncover a mechanism for how serotonin might influence aggression.’

Dr Luca Passamonti, co-first author who worked on the research while a visiting scientist at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge (and currently based at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR), Unità di Ricerca Neuroimmagini, Catanzaro), said: ‘Although these results came from healthy volunteers, they are also relevant for a broad range of psychiatric disorders in which violence is a common problem. For example, these results may help to explain the brain mechanisms of a psychiatric disorder known as intermittent explosive disorder (IED). Individuals with IED typically show intense, extreme and uncontrollable outbursts of violence which may be triggered by cues of provocation such as a facial expression of anger.

‘We are hopeful that our research will lead to improved diagnostics as well as better treatments for this and other conditions.’

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Cambridge ranked best in the world

The University of Cambridge has been ranked number one in the world for the second year running in the 2011 QS World Ranking of universities.

The rankings assess factors including reputation, graduate employability, research and staff-student ratios.

They are compiled from surveys of more than 33,000 global academics and 16,000 graduate employers, the largest ever conducted.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said: ‘It is welcome to see the best British universities ranked with the best in the world by the 2011 QS World University rankings.

‘As one of the world’s leading research universities Cambridge makes a unique contribution to society and to the individual, not just here in the UK but globally. We help to uphold the reputation of the UK as a centre of excellence internationally.

‘Cambridge is proud of the world-class education we offer through our Colleges and Faculties. Our students benefit from intensive tuition, exceptional individual support and some of the best academic facilities in the world, and they have excellent career prospects.

‘Our collegiate structure enables the University to maintain a close relationship between teaching and research. Our commitment to excellence in both is the key to our global reputation.’

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of universities, said: ‘These figures provide another indication that UK universities punch well above their weight on the world stage, with Russell Group institutions taking four of the top seven spots including Cambridge at number one. We have better universities than any other country, apart from the US.’

QS World University Ranking 2011

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Oscar winner Michael Moore and Richard Dawkins head for Festival of Ideas

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins are two late star additions to this year’s Festival of Ideas line-up at Cambridge University.

Bookings for the Festival, the UK’s only arts, humanities and social sciences festival, opened on 5 September at www.cam.ac.uk/festivalofideas. The Festival itself runs from 19–30 October 2011.

Moore, director of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine and Dawkins join a world-class collection of speakers, celebrity writers and leading academics who will examine and explain today’s burning issues.

Moore’s talk at the Festival, ‘Here Comes Trouble’, is also the title of his new book – a take-no-prisoners ‘anti-memoir’ that details how a film-maker from Flint, Michigan became the man corporate and right-wing America loves to hate.

Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins visits the Festival to present ideas from his first book aimed at a family audience – The Magic of Reality. Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, looks in his new book at how the real world, as understood scientifically, has a magic and beauty that is all the more inspiring for our understanding of how it works.

While both Dawkins’ and Moore’s talks are expected to sell out, the University of Cambridge hopes to welcome more than 10,000 members of the public to this year’s Festival, with more than 160 mainly free events across the widest possible spectrum of topics.

The Festival this year explores the triple themes of Freedom, Revolution and Communication with debates on Wikileaks, the Arab Spring and the imminent population landmark of seven billion humans on the planet.

Other recent additions to the Festival programme include:

  • Race in the 21st Century: is the debate over? With journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Matthew Ryder QC and Carlene Firmin MBE, Principal Policy Advisor at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
  • In the Pink – Dr Kat Arney explores if little girls’ fascination with the colour pink is down to their genes or culture, asking whether the pinkification of girlhood should be a cause for concern.
  • Moving pictures, moving stories: the end of the Raj – Dr Kevin Greenbank and Dr Annamaria Motrescu will show some of the Centre of South Asian Studies’ unique collection of films, photos and interviews chronicling the heyday – and final days – of the Raj.

Festival organiser Sophie Smith said: ‘The Festival has something for everyone. Alongside the fun and lively events for families, there will be amazing musical performances in King’s College Chapel and the University of Cambridge’s museums.’

The main day of the Festival, on Saturday 22 October, is bursting with free events for the whole family to enjoy. There will be talks by world-famous children’s authors Marcus Sedgwick and zombie-loving Charlie Higson; debates by pioneering academics and dozens of hands-on activities for adults as well as children.

The Festival of Ideas this year has been made possible thanks to the generous support of various organisations and companies, including Barclays Corporate, Research Councils UK, Cambridge University Press, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), RAND Europe, the Irwin & Joan Jacobs Foundation and Anglia Ruskin University.

The full programme is available and can be requested by phoning 01223 766766. Please visit: www.cam.ac.uk/festivalofideas.

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Multiple sclerosis research doubles number of genes associated with the disease

Scientists have identified 29 new genetic variants linked to multiple sclerosis, providing key insights into the biology of a very debilitating neurological disease.

Many of the genes implicated in the study are relevant to the immune system, shedding light onto the immunological pathways that underlie the development of multiple sclerosis.

The research, involving an international team of investigators led by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and funded by the Wellcome Trust, was published on 11 August, in the journal Nature. This is the largest MS genetics study ever undertaken and includes contributions from almost 250 researchers as members of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium and the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium.

Multiple sclerosis is one of the most common neurological conditions among young adults, affecting around 2.5 million individuals worldwide. The disease results from damage to nerve fibres and their protective insulation, the myelin sheath, in the brain and spinal cord.

The affected pathways – responsible in health for everyday activities such as seeing, walking, feeling, thinking and controlling the bowel and bladder – are prevented from ‘firing’ properly and eventually are destroyed. The findings announced today focus attention on the pivotal role of the immune system in causing the damage and help to explain the nature of the immune attack on the brain and spinal cord.

In this multi-population study, researchers studied the DNA from 9,772 individuals with multiple sclerosis and 17,376 unrelated healthy controls. They were able to confirm 23 previously known genetic associations and identified a further 29 new genetic variants (and an additional five that are strongly suspected) conferring susceptibility to the disease.

A large number of the genes implicated by these findings play pivotal roles in the workings of the immune system, specifically in the function of T-cells (one type of white blood cell responsible for mounting an immune response against foreign substances in the body but also involved in autoimmunity) as well as the activation of ‘interleukins’ (chemicals that ensure interactions between different types of immune cells). Interestingly, one third of the genes identified in this research have previously been implicated in playing a role in other autoimmune diseases (such as Crohn’s Disease and Type 1 diabetes) indicating that, perhaps as expected, the same general processes occur in more than one type of autoimmune disease.

Previous research has suggested a link between Vitamin D deficiency and an increased risk of multiple sclerosis. Along with the many genes which play a direct role in the immune system, the researchers identified two involved in the metabolism of Vitamin D, providing additional insight into a possible link between genetic and environmental risk factors.

Alastair Compston from the University of Cambridge who, on behalf of the International Multiple Sclerosis Genetics Consortium, led the study jointly with Peter Donnelly from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford, said: ‘Identifying the basis for genetic susceptibility to any medical condition provides reliable insights into the disease mechanisms. Our research settles a longstanding debate on what happens first in the complex sequence of events that leads to disability in multiple sclerosis. It is now clear that multiple sclerosis is primarily an immunological disease. This has important implications for future treatment strategies.’

Peter Donnelly, who leads the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium, added: ‘Our findings highlight the value of large genetic studies in uncovering key biological mechanisms underlying common human diseases. This would simply not have been possible without a large international network of collaborators, and the participation of many thousands of patients suffering from this debilitating disease.’

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Todd-Hamied Laboratory at the Department of Chemistry opens

The University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry has today unveiled the new, cutting-edge Todd-Hamied Laboratory. The laboratory will explore harnessing materials for energy storage and conversion in an effort to develop the next generation of batteries and fuel cells.

The laboratory’s name is derived in part from its donor; humanitarian, alumnus of Christ’s College, and Chairman and Managing Director of the pharmaceutical company Cipla, Dr Yusuf Hamied. ‘Todd’ refers to Professor Lord Alexander Todd, Nobel Prize-winning chemist and former Master of Christ’s.

Mrs Marjorie Gibson, widow of Professor Geoffrey Moorhouse Gibson, a member of Trinity College, offered a benefaction to Trinity for research in chemistry in her husband’s memory. The college gave these funds to endow the Geoffrey Moorhouse Gibson Professorship in the Department of Chemistry. Professor Clare P Grey is the first Geoffrey Moorhouse Gibson Professor, and she has also been appointed Director of the Todd-Hamied Laboratory.

Remarking on the new lab, Professor Grey said: ‘I’d like to thank Dr Hamied for his generous contribution to the laboratory, which has allowed us to convert an old, abandoned space into an impressive and well-designed modern laboratory. It is already allowing us to perform cutting edge science in materials chemistry and NMR spectroscopy.’

Professor Grey’s particular focus among energy materials is on electrodes and electrolytes for lithium-ion batteries and fuel cells. The lightweight and energy-dense materials used in lithium ion batteries have provided one of the most important recent breakthroughs in batteries used for consumer electronics, and are increasingly being considered by the automotive industry to power hybrid and electric vehicles, and for load levelling to manage the flow of electricity in a power grid.

One specific component of Professor Grey’s research is to develop new tools based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) for visualising how ions are transported through the different materials in real time and to use this information to feed into the design of the next generation of batteries and fuel cells.

Prof Grey arrived at Cambridge in 2009, having spent 15 years at Stony Brook University (SBU). She received a BA and a DPhil in Chemistry from the University of Oxford. In 2011, she was elected to the Royal Society and in the same year received the Royal Society Kavli Lecture and Medal for work relating to the environment/energy. She is the Associate Director of the Northeastern Chemical Energy Storage Center, a US Department of Energy Centre based at SBU.

Dr Hamied arrived at Christ’s in 1954 from Bombay and graduating with a First in natural sciences. His company, Cipla Ltd, has played a key role in launching important drugs for the first time in India. These include medicines to fight many diseases, ranging from asthma to cancer to AIDS. He is also a Trustee of The Yusuf and Farida Hamied Foundation, a member of the Department of Chemistry Advisory Board, an Honorary Fellow of Christ’s College and has been a member of the Guild of Cambridge Benefactors since 2007.

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Whistleblowers, zombies… and how to stay out of prison

Freedom, revolution and communication have shaped human history since the dawn of mankind. These three themes form the backbone of this year’s Festival of Ideas at the University of Cambridge – the UK’s only arts, humanities and social sciences festival.

Taking place from 19–30 October 2011, the festival, now in its fourth year, returns with more than 160 free events for all ages spanning everything from the Arab Spring and Wikileaks, to Darwin’s work on facial expressions and a presentation, complete with mock-up cell, on how to stay out of prison.

World-class speakers, celebrity writers and leading academics will be on hand to engage, explain and examine today’s burning issues – and looking at what lessons we can learn from the past.

As the population imminently approaches the seven billion mark, we ask leading academics to debate whether the Earth can sustain this many people.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers, computer security researchers and policymakers will discuss whether the Internet should be censored in light of the Wikileaks revelations; and experts will debate the consequences of the uprisings, protests and civil wars in the Arab world.

The main day of the festival, on Saturday 22 October, is bursting with free events for the whole family to enjoy. There will be talks by world-famous children’s authors Marcus Sedgwick and zombie-loving Charlie Higson; debates by pioneering academics and dozens of hands-on activities for adults as well as children.

Popcorn comedy for kids sees Holly Walsh and CBBC’s Ed Petrie present some of the funniest videos online mixed with stand-up comedy for all the family.

Also on 22 October, Dr Michael Scott will explore Delphi and Olympia; and the fate of the English language will be questioned by Dr Andrew Dalby and Dr Stephen Pax.

This year’s festival sees the return and expansion of a pioneering new musical initiative following last year’s sell-out opera in the vaults of the Museum of Zoology. This year there will be a special late-night opening at five of the University Museums with live performances and sound installations.

Perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated music event of the festival is Unlocking music’s secrets at King’s College Chapel, featuring choral and solo instrumental performances as the evolution of music – from the medieval era to the 21st Century – is played out before the audience’s eyes and ears.

The full programme is available from August and can be requested by phoning 01223 766766. Please visit the Cambridge University website for more information.

Bookings open on Monday 5 September.

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Biomarker for autism discovered

Siblings of people with autism show a similar pattern of brain activity to that seen in people with autism when looking at emotional facial expressions. The University of Cambridge researchers identified the reduced activity in a part of the brain associated with empathy and argue it may be a ‘biomarker’ for a familial risk of autism.

Dr Michael Spencer, who led the study from the University’s Autism Research Centre, said: ‘The findings provide a springboard to investigate what specific genes are associated with this biomarker. The brain’s response to facial emotion could be a fundamental building block in causing autism and its associated difficulties.’

The Medical Research Council funded study was published on 12 July, in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Previous research has found that people with autism often struggle to read people’s emotions and that their brains process emotional facial expressions differently to people without autism. However, this is the first time scientists have found siblings of individuals with autism have a similar reduction in brain activity when viewing others’ emotions.

In one of the largest functional MRI (fMRI) studies of autism ever conducted, the researchers studied 40 families who had both a teenager with autism and a sibling without autism. Additionally, they recruited 40 teenagers with no family history of autism. The 120 participants were given fMRI scans while viewing a series of photographs of faces which were either neutral or expressing an emotion such as happiness. By comparing the brain’s activity when viewing a happy verses a neutral face, the scientists were able to observe the areas within the brain that respond to this emotion.

Despite the fact that the siblings of those with autism did not have a diagnosis of autism or Asperger syndrome, they had decreased activity in various areas of the brain (including those associated with empathy, understanding others’ emotions and processing information from faces) compared to those with no family history of autism. The scans of those with autism revealed that the same areas of the brain as their siblings were also underactive, but to a greater degree. (These brain regions included the temporal poles, the superior temporal sulcus, the superior frontal gyrus, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the fusiform face area.)

Because the siblings without autism and the controls differed only in terms of the siblings having a family history of autism, the brain activity differences can be attributed to the same genes that give the sibling their genetic risk for autism.

Explaining why only one of the siblings might develop autism when both have the same biomarker, Dr Spencer said: ‘It is likely that in the sibling who develops autism additional as yet unknown steps – such as further genetic, brain structure or function differences – take place to cause autism.’

It is known that in a family where one child already has autism, the chances of a subsequent child developing autism are at least 20 times higher than in the general population. The reason for the enhanced risk, and the reason why two siblings can be so differently affected, are key unresolved questions in the field of autism research, and Dr Spencer’s group’s findings begin to shed light on these fundamental questions.

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‘Classics Question Time’ to reveal enduring lessons from the ancient world

Latin-lovers, Greek fanatics and anyone with a passing interest in the ancient world will have a unique opportunity to put their questions to the experts at two major public debates in Cambridge this summer.

As part of a wider conference on the classical world, the University of Cambridge is hosting two open fora, billed as a ‘Classics Question Time’, and featuring leading scholars, commentators and other public figures.

The panellists will include the philosopher Roger Scruton; Liberty Director, Shami Chakrabarti; columnists Simon Heffer and Simon Jenkins; historian David Cannadine; children’s author Caroline Lawrence and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and former director of the British School at Rome.

Audience members will be invited to interrogate them on the subjects of Pompeii – and how to manage tourism in the fragile remains of one of the world’s most famous heritage sites – and Socrates, whose famous trial and alleged miscarriage of justice in 399BC may have been a ‘fair cop’ after all.

The discussions will be held at 8.15pm on 26 and 27 July 2011 in the Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Site, Cambridge and are open to all. Tickets, priced £10 for adults, £7 for concessions or £25 for families, are available now from the Cambridge Corn Exchange Box Office, Wheeler Street, or by calling 01223 357851. Full details are also available at www.classics.cam.ac.uk/triennial.

The aim of the event is to use two of the most controversial problems relating to the ancient world as a means of confronting most important issues in the present.

Professor Mary Beard, from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics, which is organising the event, said: ‘We’re trying to think about big issues and look at them through a classical prism. The intent is to get people to think a little bit more widely and to see that by looking at these problems from the ancient world, we can find new and interesting ways to confront our own.’

Professor Beard will also be taking part in the session called ‘Will Pompeii Survive?’. Last year the so-called House of the Gladiators in the ancient city suddenly collapsed overnight following heavy rains. The building itself was a reconstruction, having been bombed by the Allies in World War II, but its sudden and dramatic subsidence in November has prompted new concerns about the fate of Pompeii as an iconic world heritage centre.

Many experts have warned for some time that parts of Pompeii are gradually disintegrating and that a significant investment of money and manpower in the site is needed to prevent it from collapse. Part of the problem is the sheer weight of tourist traffic which passes through the site; the numbers approach two million every year. With poor crowd monitoring and control and ample opportunities for vandalism to occur, a number of experts now believe that humans are wreaking damage on the site far worse than that caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Dozens of buildings are thought to be under threat.

This raises much broader issues about how to manage public access to heritage sites in a sustainable way. ‘It’s a question about how visitors should enjoy a site like that, and who should pay for it?’ Beard said. ‘That applies just as much to sites like the Pyramids or Stonehenge. Is Pompeii just going to end up as a ruined theme park? There is a much wider debate about how we manage ancient monuments and materials.’

The death of Socrates is another example of an ancient dispute that has significant implications for the modern world. Typically, the trial and execution of this founding father of western philosophy has been considered a grand miscarriage of justice and a classic example of democracy turning rotten and descending into mob rule. In 2009, however, Professor Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge, who will take part in the July debate, proposed that in fact, justice may have been done.

The argument hinges on the purity of Athenian democracy and the fact that one of the supposedly trumped up charges on which Socrates was tried was ‘impiety’. A string of disasters in the years leading up to 399 BC, Cartledge contends, may well have led Athenians to believe that they had somehow offended Zeus and the other gods. Socrates was a thinker who had openly questioned the legitimacy of the gods themselves, and who spoke frequently of his inner ‘daimonon’ – a term he probably meant as intuition, but which, thanks to the inherent ambiguities of Ancient Greek, could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural influence.

Judged by the standards of Athenian democracy, which tested everything according to the service of the public good, Socrates was placing the city in jeopardy. In that sense it was a fair judgement – but for us in the 21st century, it has important resonances. ‘It raises questions about human rights and freedom of speech,’ Beard said. ‘If we think it is a fair cop, what does that say about how we regard people’s freedom to air controversial views now, and the standards by which we measure them?’

Both debates are part of the Classics Triennial, a major classics conference which attracts an international cast of about 150 leading scholars and is being hosted by the University’s Faculty of Classics each year. The full programme begins on 25 July and details can be found at www.classics.cam.ac.uk.

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Important step in the next generation of computing

Scientists have taken one step closer to the next generation of computers. Research from the Cavendish Laboratory, the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, provides new insight into spintronics, which has been hailed as the successor to the transistor.

Spintronics, which exploits the electron’s tiny magnetic moment, or ‘spin’, could radically change computing due to its potential of high-speed, high-density and low-power consumption. The new research sheds light on how to make ‘spin’ more efficient.

For the past 50 years, progress in electronics has relied heavily on the downsizing of the transistor through the semiconductor industry in order to provide the technology for the small, powerful computers that are the basis of our modern information society. In a 1965 paper, Intel co-founder Gordon E Moore described how the number of transistors that could be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit had doubled every year between 1958 and 1965, predicting that the trend would continue for at least ten more years.

That prediction, now known as Moore’s Law, effectively described a trend that has continued ever since, but the end of that trend – the moment when transistors are as small as atoms, and cannot be shrunk any further – is expected as early as 2015. At the moment, researchers are seeking new concepts of electronics that sustain the growth of computing power.

Spintronics research attempts to develop a spin-based electronic technology that will replace the charge-based technology of semiconductors. Scientists have already begun to develop new spin-based electronics, beginning with the discovery in 1988 of giant magnetoresistance (GMR) effect. The discovery of GMR effect brought about a breakthrough in gigabyte hard disk drives and was also key in the development of portable electronic devices such as the iPod.

While conventional technology relies on harnessing the charge of electrons, the field of spintronics depends instead on the manipulation of electrons’ spin. One of the unique properties in spintronics is that spins can be transferred without the flow of electric charge currents. This is called ‘spin current’ and unlike other concepts of harnessing electrons, the spin current can transfer information without generating heat in electric devices. The major remaining obstacle to a viable spin current technology is the difficulty of creating a volume of spin current large enough to support current and future electronic devices.

However, the new Cambridge researchers in close collaboration with Professor Sergej Demokritov group at the University of Muenster, Germany, have, in part, addressed this issue. In order to create enhanced spin currents, the researchers used the collective motion of spins called spin waves (the wave property of spins). By bringing spin waves into interaction, they have demonstrated a new, more efficient way of generating spin current.

Dr Hidekazu Kurebayashi, from the Microelectronics Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, said: ‘You can find lots of different waves in nature, and one of the fascinating things is that waves often interact with each other. Likewise, there are a number of different interactions in spin waves. Our idea was to use such spin wave interactions for generating efficient spin currents.’

According to their findings, one of the spin wave interactions (called three-magnon splitting) generates spin current ten times more efficiently than using pre-interacting spin-waves. Additionally, the findings link the two major research fields in spintronics, namely the spin current and the spin wave interaction.

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Betting on good luck and four leaf clovers

Research led by the University of Cambridge has found a link between impulsivity and flawed reasoning (such as believing in superstitious rituals and luck) in problem gamblers.

Studying compulsive gamblers who were seeking treatment at the National Problem Gambling Clinic, the researchers found that those gamblers with higher levels of impulsivity were much more susceptible to errors in reasoning associated with gambling, such as superstitious rituals (eg carrying a lucky charm) and explaining away recent losses (eg on bad luck or ‘cold’ machines).

The findings were published on 29 June, in the journal Psychological Medicine. The research, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), took place at the National Problem Gambling Clinic which opened in 2008 and is the only NHS funded service for disordered gambling in the UK.

While gambling is a popular form of entertainment for many people, problem (or ‘pathological’) gambling is a recognised psychiatric diagnosis affecting around 1% of the UK population. Symptoms include a loss of control over gambling, withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, and various ‘harms’, including gambling debts and family difficulties.

Dr Luke Clark, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychiatry, said: ‘The link between impulsivity and gambling beliefs suggests to us that high impulsivity can predispose a range of more complex distortions – such as superstitions – that gamblers often experience. Our research helps fuse these two likely underlying causes of problem gambling, shedding light on why some people are prone to becoming pathological gamblers.’

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, compared 30 gamblers seeking treatment at the clinic with 30 non-gamblers from the general population.

The researchers asked the participants a series of financial questions involving trade-offs between smaller amounts of money available immediately versus larger amounts of money in the future (eg would you prefer £20 today or £35 in two weeks?) to test impulsivity. The gamblers were significantly more likely to choose the immediate reward despite the fact that it was less money. (Psychologists define impulsivity as a preference for the immediate smaller rewards on this task.)

Additionally, a questionnaire showed that gamblers were particularly impulsive during high or low moods, which are frequently cues that can trigger gambling sprees.

While aspects of the ‘addictive personality’ have been identified previously in studies of problem gambling, the novel finding in the British gamblers was that those gamblers with higher levels of impulsivity were also more susceptible to various errors in reasoning that occur during gambling, including an increase in superstitious rituals and blaming losses on such things as bad luck.

Like treatment-seeking gamblers elsewhere in the world, the group from the National Problem Gambling Clinic were predominantly male, and experienced a moderate rate of other mental health problems including depression and alcohol abuse.

Dr Clark added: ‘There are promising developments in treatments for problem gambling such as psychological therapies and drug medications. We hope that our research will provide additional insight into the problem and inform future treatments.’

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Cambridge announces new fund for arts, humanities and social sciences research

Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz has announced the creation of a £300,000 fund to be awarded to Cambridge University researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Following the termination by the British Academy and ESRC of their respective Small Grants schemes, the Vice-Chancellor has moved quickly to fill the void left by their withdrawal.

The BA and ESRC schemes were of great importance to researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences, particularly in creating opportunities for experimentation, and as a crucial means of career building for early career scholars.

The new fund will help offset the impact of their withdrawal and make it possible for academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences to undertake research, including pilot or experimental work in preparation for larger-scale activities.

To that end, £300,000 will be made available as a single fund at the disposal of the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences. If the Scheme is successful it may be repeated.

The Schools have decided to use this funding to operate a Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme, open to all University Teaching Officers and College Teaching Officers in the arts, humanities and social sciences with a contract of employment at the point of application. Details of the funding available and the application process will be made available online. Bids are invited for awards between £1,000 and £20,000 in value.

The overriding factor in determining awards will be the quality of research. In addition, it is important that the funding delivers maximum strategic benefit to Departments, whether in terms of furthering specific research objectives, developing capacity or strengthening research excellence.

The Vice-Chancellor said: ‘This funding represents my commitment – and the University’s commitment – to preserving the arts, humanities and social sciences base. The importance of these subjects to Cambridge, the wider University system and the UK as a whole cannot be overestimated.’

The deadline for the initial round of funding bids is September 16, 2011.

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TS Eliot legacy helps secure English teaching at Newnham College

A new English teaching fund worth £1.125m has been established at Newnham College, Cambridge thanks to one of the world’s best-loved and most successful musicals – Cats.

The fund has been set up with a generous donation by Valerie Eliot, editor, publisher and wife of the late Nobel Prize-winning poet TS Eliot. She has been an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College for the past 20 years.

Valerie Eliot was instrumental in encouraging Andrew Lloyd Webber to transform TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats from a beloved collection of poems into a record-breaking musical that enchanted audiences worldwide for 21 years.

Welcoming the news, Newnham College Principal Dame Patricia Hodgson said: ‘Newnham College is enormously grateful to Valerie Eliot for this generous gift. It will guarantee in perpetuity the tradition of first class English teaching at Newnham, a tradition that has produced the most wonderful raft of writers and academics since the college was founded.’

The donation comes from Old Possum’s Practical Trust, the literary and artistic charity set up by Valerie Eliot in part with funds generated by the musical Cats.

‘It is marvellous – and entirely appropriate – that profits from the musical Cats are being reinvested in teaching and learning English at Newnham. Almost everyone has a favourite Cats poem, and we should always remember that popular literature is rooted in the scholarly tradition of teaching and learning in English,’ Dame Patricia says.

Cats enchanted audiences of all ages throughout the world. Bursting onto the stage in 1981 it ran for 21 years in London, where it attracted audiences of 8 million to almost 9,000 shows. In 1996 it became the longest-running musical ever to play in the West End or on Broadway. By the time it closed it had been translated into 11 languages, and played to more than 50 million people in 300 cities from New York to Tokyo.

The establishment of the Valerie Eliot Fund for English is particularly important at a time of cuts to higher education funding in general – and funding for arts subjects in particular.

‘It is a most marvellous example of the generosity of an individual supporting opportunities for young people at a time when public funding is not available, especially for those who want to study the arts,’ says Dame Patricia.

As well as reflecting Valerie Eliot’s long-standing link with Newnham College and honouring her outstanding scholarly achievements in her own right, the donation is also a reminder of the poet’s association with English at Cambridge. It was his creative and critical writing in the 1920s, and his friendship with the founders of the English Tripos, that has made English teaching at Cambridge so distinct.

Valerie Eliot says: ‘I am very pleased to help to ensure the continuing excellence of the teaching at Newnham College with the creation of a lectureship in English literature. Newnham has a long and illustrious history in the teaching of English and has produced many outstanding and talented individuals. I am very pleased to be able to assist in ensuring this tradition will continue and it seems entirely appropriate that it has been made possible as a result of my husband TS Eliot’s work. I am particularly proud of my own connection with Newnham and this fund will cement that further.’

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New research provides insight into how OCD develops

New scientific evidence challenges a popular conception that behaviours such as repetitive hand-washing, characteristic of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), are carried out in response to disturbing obsessive fears.

The study, conducted at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, found that in the case of OCD the behaviours themselves (the compulsions) might be the precursors to the disorder, and that obsessions may simply be the brain’s way of justifying these behaviours. The research provides important insight into how the debilitating repetitive behaviour of OCD develops and could lead to more effective treatments and preventative measures for the disorder.

The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the renowned American Journal of Psychiatry, tested 20 patients suffering from the disorder and 20 control subjects (without OCD) on a task which looked at the tendency to develop habit-like behaviour. Subjects were required to learn simple associations between stimuli, behaviours and outcomes in order to win points on a task.

The team, led by Claire Gillan and Trevor Robbins at the University of Cambridge MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and Sanne de Wit at the University of Amsterdam, found that patients suffering from the disorder had a tendency to continue to respond regardless of whether or not their behaviour produced a desirable outcome. In other words, this behaviour was habitual. The discovery that compulsive behaviour – the irresistible urge to perform a task – can be observed in the laboratory, in the absence of any related obsessions, suggests that compulsions may be the critical feature of OCD.

Indeed, one of the most effective treatments for OCD is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which typically involves a method known as ‘exposure and response prevention’. This technique challenges patients to discontinue compulsive responding, and learn that the feared consequence does not occur, whether or not the behaviour is performed. The effectiveness of this treatment is compatible with the idea that compulsions, and not obsessions, are critical in OCD. Once the compulsion is stopped, the obsession tends to fade away.

‘It has long been established that humans have a tendency to ‘fill in the gaps’ when it comes to behaviour that cannot otherwise be logically explained,’ said Claire Gillan, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. ‘In the case of OCD, the overwhelming urge to senselessly repeat a behaviour might be enough to instil a very real obsessive fear in order to explain it.’

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Research provides insight into quality of stored blood used for transfusions

New research provides evidence for significant differences between new and old red blood cells used for transfusions and could provide a cheap, rapid and effective way to monitor the quality of blood supplies.

Even with preservatives, blood stored in banks continues to age, resulting in biomaterials leaking from the red blood cells and subsequent changes to cell properties and function. There have been concerns raised worldwide about using older stored blood because of questions about various changes believed to affect the quality of the red blood cells. Currently, blood stored in a special medium can be used for clinical transfusion for up to 42 days, but monitoring of the blood varies.

Dr Jay Mehrishi, PhD, FRCPath (a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists), formerly of the Department of Radiotherapeutics and Medicine (now called the Department of Haematology) at the University of Cambridge and one of the lead authors of the study, said: ‘Recent trials on cardiac surgery patients involving over 40,000 patients showed that transfused blood which was older than 14 days produced serious side effects.

‘The side effects of transfusing old blood are thought to result in acute lung injury and possible adverse effects of the immune system. In severe trauma patients, transfusion of blood stored for more than 28 days doubled the incidence of deep vein thrombosis and increased death secondary to multiple organ failure. Our research will hopefully highlight the significant differences between old and new blood used in transfusions as well as the possibility of using our technique to quickly and cheaply monitor blood supply quality.’

The electrical properties of red blood cells have previously been used to distinguish between foetal and adult haemoglobin as well as the mutated form of haemoglobin found in sickle cells from normal haemoglobin. Now, using the unique electrical properties of red blood cells, Dr Mehrishi, working with Professor Yao-Xiong Huang from the Ji Nan University in China, used fluorescence from the positively charged quantum dots, which had been bound to electrical charges on the negatively charged cells to discriminate between old cells (which had diminished in quality) and young cells.

On young red blood cells the fluorescence was intense bright, indicating that the surface architecture was intact. Whereas on the older red blood cells, the fluorescence was almost zero and the cells shown significantly darker, indicating that there had been a substantial loss of the electrical charges, indicating the cell membrane integrity had been compromised. It is recognised that such damaged cells are not useful for transfusions because the body eliminates them from circulation quite quickly.

Dr Mehrishi continued: ‘This study is the culmination of decades of research into blood cells, and a collaboration with the skilful Professor Huang – persevering with his expertise and team – and I am thrilled that for the first time visual imaging has provided evidence for the quality of the red blood cells.

‘We need simple, routine quality control monitoring of blood in storage to avoid the serious adverse effects caused by biomaterials released from damaged cells accumulating.’

In addition to its use as a monitoring technique for the quality of blood stored in blood banks, Dr Mehrishi believes that it could also be used to ensure a high quality of ‘cleaned up’ blood (older blood which has had the leaked biomaterials removed), which is of immense practical clinical importance worldwide.

Dr Mehrishi said: ‘These results are not only of theoretical interest but are also of immense practical clinical value, with vast commercial potential for new, rapid automated monitoring tests in clinics and in blood banks worldwide.

‘Our novel approach is also likely to be of practical value in clinics before, during and after therapy, for such problems as circulatory disorders, abnormal red cells, macrophages (eg in Gaucher disease), respiratory physiology, hypoxia, high-altitude mountaineers, residents at high altitudes, etc.’

The findings have been published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

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Pentagonal tiles pave the way towards organic electronics

New research paves way for the nanoscale self-assembly of organic building blocks, a promising new route towards the next generation of ultra-small electronic devices.

Ring-like molecules with unusual five-fold symmetry bind strongly to a copper surface, due to a substantial transfer of charge, but experience remarkably little difficulty in sideways diffusion, and exhibit surprisingly little interaction between neighbouring molecules. This unprecedented combination of features is ideal for the spontaneous creation of high-density stable thin films, comprising a pavement of these organic pentagonal tiles, with potential applications in computing, solar power and novel display technologies.

Currently, commercial electronics use a top-down approach, with the milling or etching away of inorganic material, such as silicon, to make a device smaller. For many years the computing power of a given size of computer chip has been doubling every eighteen months (a phenomenon known as Moore’s law) but a limit in this growth is soon expected. At the same time, the efficiency of coupling electronic components to incoming or outgoing light (either in the generation of electricity from sunlight, or in the generation of light from electricity in flat-screen displays and lighting) is also fundamentally limited by the development of fabrication techniques at the nanometre scale (a nanometre being one billionth of a metre).

Researchers are therefore looking for ingenious solutions in the creation of ever smaller electronics. The field of nanotechnology is taking a bottom-up approach of creating electronics using naturally self-assembling organic components, such as polymers, which will be capable of spontaneously forming devices with the desired electronic or optical characteristics.

The latest findings are from scientists at the University of Cambridge and Rutgers University who are working on the development of new classes of organic thin films on surfaces. By studying the fundamental forces at play in self-assembling thin films, they are developing the knowledge that will allow them to tailor these films into molecular-scale organic-electronic devices, creating smaller components than would ever be possible with conventional fabrication techniques.

Dr Holly Hedgeland, of the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, one of the co-authors of the paper reporting the research, said: ‘With the semiconductor industry currently worth an estimated $249 billion per year there is a clear motivation towards a molecular scale understanding of innovative technologies that could come to replace those we use today.’

It is not simply the electronic properties of a molecule on a surface that will control its potential to form part of a device, but also whether it will move by itself into the required structural configuration and remain stable in that position even if the device becomes heated in use.

Molecules that are strongly bound to the substrate with a high degree of transfer of charge offer a range of new possibilities, though little is currently known of their behaviour. A number of organic molecules, usually featuring carbon rings across which electronic charge can conduct, potentially demonstrate the right electronic properties, but the long-range forces which will govern their self-assembly during the first phases of growth often remain a mystery.

Now the interdisciplinary team based in the Departments of Physics and Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, and the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Rutgers University, have reported the first dynamical measurements for a new class of organic thin film where cyclopentadienyl molecules (C5H5) receive significant electronic charge from the surface, yet diffuse easily across the surface and show interactions with each other that are much weaker than would typically be expected for the amount of charge transferred.

Hedgeland explained: ‘By coupling the experimental helium spin echo technique with advanced first-principles calculations, we were able to study the dynamic behaviour of a cyclopentendienyl layer on a copper surface, and to deduce that the charge transfer between the metal and the organic molecule was occurring in a counter-intuitive sense.’

Dr Marco Sacchi, of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, who carried out the calculations that helped explain the startling new experimental results, said that ‘the key to the unique behavior of cyclopentadienyl lies in its pentagonal (five-fold) symmetry, which prevents it latching onto any one site within the triangular (three-fold) symmetry of the copper surface through directional covalent bonds, leaving it free to move easily from site to site; at the same time, its internal electronic structure is just one electron short of an extremely stable `aromatic’ configuration, encouraging a high degree of charge transfer from the surface and creating a strong non-directional ionic bond.’

The researchers’ findings, reported in Physical Review Letters on 6 May, highlight the potential of a new category of molecular adsorbate, which could fulfil all the criteria required for useful application.

Hedgeland concluded: ‘The unusual character of the charge transfer in this case prevents the large repulsive interactions between adjacent molecules that would otherwise have been expected, and hence should enable the formation of unusually high-density films. At the same time, the molecules remain highly mobile and yet strongly bound to the surface, with a large degree of thermal stability. In all, this is a combination of physical properties that offers huge potential benefit to the development of new classes of self-assembled organic films relevant for technological applications.‘

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Pilot project for €1 billion research program on graphene launched

Cambridge is to lead the technology roadmap towards a €1 billion European program to conduct research on graphene – a versatile substance, stronger than diamond, which researchers say could trigger a ‘smart and sustainable carbon revolution.’

The ambitious and large-scale initiative aims to achieve new breakthroughs both in terms of technological innovation using graphene, and the economic exploitation of the material.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms in a honeycomb lattice. Its high electrical conductivity and optical transparency mean that it is ideal for applications like touchscreens, liquid crystal displays, and organic light-emitting diodes. In particular, it is seen as an alternative to indium tin oxide, which is commonly used in liquid crystal displays but is brittle and costly.

Graphene’s mechanical strength and flexibility are also advantageous, as they mean that the material can be fixed to any surface and bent or twisted without becoming damaged.

By understanding graphene’s unique properties, researchers hope to turn this potential into reality, developing the material’s potential uses as an alternative to batteries, lightweight components for cars and planes, and in the fields of spintronics, quantum information processing and communication technology.

‘Graphene, a truly European technology, initiated in the UK, is at the crossroad between fundamental research and applications,’ Dr Andrea Ferrari, from the Department of Engineering, who will lead the technology roadmap of the consortium, said.

‘Exploiting the full potential of graphene will have huge impacts on society at large. We are thrilled that the EU Commission shares our view and believes in our focused and open approach to moving forward, at a time when the international community, from United States to Korea, is moving significant resources to strengthen their know-how and facilitate the roadmap to applications.’

Ground-breaking experiments on graphene, carried out by UK scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Their work has sparked a scientific explosion, best illustrated by the exponential growth of publications and patents related to graphene.

Huge amounts of human resources and capital are being invested in graphene research and applications in the US, Japan, Korea, Singapore and elsewhere. The first products are expected to enter the market by 2014, according to estimates by Samsung.

The pilot phase of the project started on 1 May. This includes Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, and Cambridge in the UK, the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology in Spain, the Italian National Research Council, the European Science Foundation, AMO GmbH, Nokia, and has four Nobel Prize winners in the advisory board (Geim, Novoselov, Fert and von Klitzing). Its main task is to pave the way for the full, 10 year, €1 billion flagship programme. The plan for this will be submitted to the European Commission in 2012, with a view to launching in 2013.

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Pioneering plant sciences lab opens at Cambridge University

Her Majesty The Queen officially opened The Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge on 27 April.

The state-of-the-art research facility, which was made possible by an £82m grant by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, will focus on addressing some of the problems threatening the world today, including the increasing strain on the world’s food supplies.

‘With an increasing reliance on plants, not just for food but for fuel as well, the fundamental understanding of plants is more important than ever,’ said Professor Elliot Meyerowitz, the inaugural Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory. ‘We are grateful to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation for recognising the significance of this type of research and for their generosity which has made this lab a possibility.’

By obtaining a greater understanding of plant growth, development and diversity, the research will inform such issues as food security, climate change, environmental degradation, and sustainable fuel supplies.

Lord Sainsbury said: ‘This is one of the most exciting projects with which my Charitable Foundation has been involved. It combines an inspirational research programme, an historic site in the Botanic Garden and a beautiful laboratory, and I believe it will become a world-class centre of excellent plant science.’

The building will not only provide plant growth facilities, it will also be home to the University Herbarium. The unique University collection contains over one million pressed and dried plant specimens from all over the world, including the great majority of those collected by Charles Darwin on the Beagle voyage and priceless scientific research material relating to newly discovered plants from the 18th and 19th centuries. The collection is a key resource in our understanding of plant evolution and biodiversity.

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Cambridge has a strong record in the study of plant biology – a science which is now accepted as critical for our planet. This makes the Gatsby Foundation’s award to the University both natural and transformational – we are truly grateful.’

Professor Meyerowitz has come to the University of Cambridge from the California Institute of Technology, where he is George W Beadle Professor of Biology. Dr Meyerowitz earned his Artium Baccalaureatus (A.B.) from Columbia University, and MPhil and PhD degrees in biology from Yale University. Professor Meyerowitz was a Drosophila melanogaster expert before he became a pioneer of Arabidopsis thaliana research (a plant favoured by researchers because of its short life cycle and small genome). Dr Meyerowitz is well known for his contributions on the genetic and molecular basis of plant hormone reception, and on the molecular mechanisms of pattern formation in flower and shoot apical meristem development.

Associate Director is Professor Ottoline Leyser, CBE FRS. She received her BA degree in 1986 and a PhD in genetics in 1990, both from the University of Cambridge. Her research interests are in the genetics of plant development and the interaction of plant hormones with the environment.

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Royal opening for Centre of Islamic Studies

A formal opening ceremony took place on 23 March for the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Her Highness Princess Ameerah, Vice-Chairwoman of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, was greeted in Cambridge by the Chancellor, His Royal Highness Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh and the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz.

The Centre, established following an £8 million benefaction from the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, aims to carry out both research and public engagement to enhance understanding, tolerance and cross-cultural dialogue between Islam and the West.

Speaking at the opening ceremony Her Highness Princess Ameerah said: ‘The mission of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, which HRH Prince Alwaleed and I co-chair, is to help address some of the most pressing issues of our time around the world. We believe in commitment without boundaries, without regard to religion, geography or economic status. Further, we share a sincere ambition to build bridges among peoples, nations and faiths as our world is filled with individuals and communities who share far more similarities than differences.’

The two main programmes of current research at the Centre consider Muslim identities in the UK and Europe, looking at notions of citizenship, ethnicity and religious values, and will explore how Islam and Muslims are represented in the British and European media. ‘These are new areas of research for Cambridge and yet they build on a bed-rock of expertise and scholarship in Islamic Studies,’ said the Centre’s Director Professor Suleiman.

The Centre runs various public programmes, such as public lectures, conferences and summer schools. Policy-makers and other public figures will be invited to become visiting fellows at the Centre and take part in its research programmes.

The Centre’s first major report, Contextualising Islam in Britain, was praised last year by the House of Commons Department for Communities and Local Government Select Committee as ‘a model for the way forward’ for policy-makers working in similar fields.

The Prince Alwaleed Centre in Cambridge is one of six worldwide, the others being at the University of Edinburgh, the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, Harvard University and Georgetown University.

At the opening ceremony the Chancellor presented Her Highness with an 800th Anniversary Medal for Outstanding Philanthropy.

Later that day Her Royal Highness represented the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation at a Ceremony in the Senate House to mark its admission into the Guild of Cambridge Benefactors, whose membership now totals 180 Companions from all corners of the world.

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Cambridge Science Festival kicks off

Cambridge Science Festival, the UK’s largest free science festival, begins next week, running from March 14–27.

Speaking at the event are some of Britain’s preeminent scientists, lecturers and public speakers.

New this year is a festival ‘fringe’ including topics like ‘The science of sex’ and ‘So you think you can dance science!’.

CBBC presenters Huw James, Greg Foot and Stefan Gates will also be on hand to host kid-friendly lectures and demonstrations.

More than 150 mostly free events will take place across the city taking in a hugely diverse range of subjects including the science of wine, the mathematics of jazz and a discussion about the scope of plastic surgery chaired by four experts in the field called ‘Enhancement: how far do we go?’.

Jamie Shotton and Chris Bishop from Microsoft Research will be speaking about the science behind Kinect for Xbox. Other talks include Stem cells: current treatments and potential therapies; Cambridge academic Stephen O’Rahilly speaking on the subject ‘Why are we not all fat?’ and a drop-in ‘Chemistry Zone’ session featuring hand-on activities, demonstrations and games with students and researchers from the department of Chemistry.

Participants can build their own astrolabe – a medieval instrument for measuring and calculating the positions of the sun and the stars and take part in a rocket car derby at two of the drop-in events happening across the city.

The festival runs at venues across Cambridge from Monday 14 March to Sunday 27 March inclusive. Most events are free and some require pre-booking.

Shelley Bolderson, Festivals and Outreach Officer, said: ‘The 2011 festival has a broad ranging and exciting programme which promises to deliver an interesting and educational two weeks’ of events for people in Cambridge.

‘Highlights this year include the fringe, exploring topics from The science of sex to So you think you can dance science?’

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You are what your mother ate

Research provides new insight into why poor diet during pregnancy negatively affects offspring’s long term health.

Poor diet during pregnancy increases offspring’s vulnerability to the effects of aging, new research has shown for the first time.

The research, by scientists from the University of Cambridge, provides important insight into why children born to mothers who consumed an unhealthy diet during pregnancy have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes (a significant contributing factor to heart disease and cancer) later in life.

‘What is most exciting about these findings is that we are now starting to really understand how nutrition during the first nine months of life spent in the womb shape our long term health by influencing how the cells in our body age,’ said Dr Susan Ozanne, the senior author on the paper and British Heart Foundation Senior Fellow from the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge.

It is well established that environmental factors interact with genes throughout life, affecting the expression of those genes and, consequently, tissue function and disease risk. Diet during critical periods of development, such as during the nine months in the womb, has been cited as one such environmental factor. Epigenetics, which refers to modifications to the DNA that regulate how much of a gene is produced, has been suggested to underlie these effects.

However, until now, very little was understood about the underlying mechanisms that control the interaction between diet during gestation and gene expression in offspring throughout their adult life. Research, funded by the BBSRC and the British Heart Foundation, has now shown that the gene Hnf4a, which has been linked to type 2 diabetes, is regulated by maternal diet through epigenetic modifications to our DNA. Additionally, they found that poor diet exacerbates the rate at which these key epigenetic modifications accumulate during the aging process.

Previous research has shown that the gene Hnf4a plays an important role both during development of the pancreas and later in the production of insulin. The researchers hypothesised that diet during pregnancy influences the expression of this gene later in life, thereby influencing the risk of diabetes.

To test their theory, the researchers used a well-established rat model where, by altering the protein content of the mother’s diet during pregnancy, the offspring develop type 2 diabetes in old age.

First, they studied the RNA from insulin secreting cells in the pancreas from offspring of normally fed as well as malnourished mothers in young adult life and in old age. When they compared the two, they found that there was a significant decrease in the expression of the Hnf4a gene in the offspring prone to type 2 diabetes. The expression of Hnf4a also decreased with age in both groups.

Second, they studied the DNA and found that the decrease of Hnf4a was caused by epigenetic changes. The age associated epigenetic silencing was more pronounced in rats exposed to poor maternal diet. They concluded that the epigenetic changes resulting from maternal diet and aging lead to the reduced expression of the Hnf4a gene, decreasing the function of the pancreas and therefore its ability to make insulin (and thereby increasing the risk of diabetes).

The scientists then studied the DNA from insulin secreting cells from human pancreases to show that expression of this important gene was controlled in the same way in humans.

‘It is remarkable that maternal diet can mark our genes so they remember events in very early life,’ said Dr Miguel Constancia, the senior co-author on the paper from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Metabolic Research Laboratories at the University of Cambridge . ‘Our findings reveal a novel mechanism by which maternal diet and aging interact through epigenetic processes to determine our risk of age-associated diseases.’

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘We already know that a healthy pregnancy is important in shaping a child’s health, and their risk of heart disease as they grow up. The reasons why are not well understood, but this study in rats adds to the evidence that a mother’s diet may sometimes alter the control of certain genes in her unborn child. It’s no reason for expectant mothers to be unduly worried. This research doesn’t change our advice that pregnant women should try to eat a healthy, balanced diet.’

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive, BBSRC said: ‘Epigenetics is a relatively young field of research with tremendous potential to underpin our understanding of many biological processes in all organisms. The fact that there is a relationship between the biology of a pregnant mother and the long term health of her child has been known for some time but our understanding of the biological processes behind some of the more subtle effects is still at a nascent stage. This study uncovers – through epigenetics and molecular biology research – an important piece of this puzzle and shows us how apparently minor changes within cells at the very earliest stages of development can have a major influence on our health into old age.’

The research was published on 7 March, in the journal PNAS.

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The emotional computer

Cambridge University film provides a glimpse of how robots and humans could interact in the future.

Can computers understand emotions? Can computers express emotions? Can they feel emotions? The latest video from the University of Cambridge shows how emotions can be used to improve interaction between humans and computers.

When people talk to each other, they express their feelings through facial expressions, tone of voice and body postures. They even do this when they are interacting with machines. These hidden signals are an important part of human communication, but computers ignore them.

Professor Peter Robinson is leading a team in the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge who are exploring the role of emotions in human-computer interaction. His research is examined in the film The Emotional Computer, released on the
 University’s YouTube channel.

‘We’re building emotionally intelligent computers, ones that can read my mind and know how I feel,’ Professor Robinson says. ‘Computers are really good at understanding what someone is typing or even saying. But they need to understand not just what I’m saying, but how I’m saying it.’

The research team is collaborating closely with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen’s team in the University’s Autism Research Centre. Because those researchers study the difficulties that some people have understanding emotions, their insights help to address the same problems in computers.

Facial expressions are an important way of understanding people’s feelings. One system tracks features on a person’s face, calculates the gestures that are being made and infers emotions from them. It gets the right answer over 70% of the time, which is as good as most human observers.

Other systems analyse speech intonation to infer emotions from the way that something is said, and analyse body posture and gestures.

Ian Davies, one of the research students in Professor Robinson’s team, is looking at applications of these technologies in command and control systems. ‘Even in something as simple as a car we need to know if the driver is concentrating and confused, so that we can avoid overloading him with distractions from a mobile phone, the radio, or a satellite navigations system.’

Merely understanding emotions is not enough. Professor Robinson wants computers to express emotions as well, whether they are cartoon animations, or physical robots. PhD student Tadas Baltruaitis, another team member, works on animating figures to mimic a person’s facial expressions, while fellow PhD candidate Laurel Riek is experimenting with a robotic head modelled on Charles Babbage, which appears in the film.

‘Charles has two dozen motors controlling "muscles" in his face, giving him a wide range of expressions,” Robinson explains. ‘We can use him to explore empathy, rapport building, and co-operation in emotional interactions between people and computers.

‘The key to scientific research is to avoid preconceptions and to expect surprises. I just recruit the best graduate students from around the world, make sure that they have the resources that they need and then just let them get on with it. They bounce ideas off each other and solve problems together.

‘The team has to combine results from many disciplines, and this is true for many research problems in computer science. We need to understand psychology, signal processing and statistical machine learning as well as systems engineering to tackle these problems. Because the University has experts in all these fields it’s a perfect place to do the research.’

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Distinguished lecture celebrates launch of construction research centre at Cambridge

Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, recently welcomed more than 250 invited guests from the construction industry and academia for the inaugural Laing O’Rourke Distinguished Lecture. Bill Baker, Structural Engineering Partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP was the speaker.

Bill has worked on a number of innovative structures during his career. His best-known contribution has been to develop the ‘buttressed core’ structural system for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at over 828m the world’s tallest man-made structure.

His lecture, entitled ‘Inspired Dreams or Wilful Excess: the Ethical Dilemma of Iconic Structures’, explored the challenges facing designers on both the technical and ethical front and examined the rationality underpinning the design and construction of a range of structures from the simplest to the iconic.

Professor Robert Mair, Head of Civil Engineering at Cambridge, thanked Bill for his inspiring lecture which illustrated the excitement and challenges of modern structural engineering.

The Distinguished Lecture Series has been established to recognise and honour excellence in the global construction engineering profession.

After his presentation, Bill was presented with the Inaugural Distinguished Lecture Award by Ray O’Rourke, Chairman and Chief Executive of Laing O’Rourke, who reaffirmed his view that our future is inextricably linked to the sciences and engineering.

The evening was also an opportunity to celebrate the launch of the newly established Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering & Technology in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

This new multi-disciplinary academic centre of excellence has been made possible by the vision and generosity of Laing O’Rourke who have made a multi-million pound commitment towards its establishment and operation.

The Centre aims to promote innovative thinking, research and teaching to provide a new vision for the shape of tomorrow’s construction industry.

At a celebration dinner at King’s College after the lecture, the Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, welcomed this new initiative and highlighted the impact of construction on all aspects of civilisation.

He cited the potential advantages to be gained from expanding the outlook of the centre to interact with a broad spectrum of disciplines spanning not only all the engineering sciences but also the biological and social sciences and the humanities as these can also offer insight into how our built environment impacts societies.

To conclude the evening, Dr Campbell Middleton, Director of the new Centre, invited those present to help develop the vision for its future. He also took the opportunity to promote the new part-time Masters degree in Construction Engineering at Cambridge which will admit its first students in September 2011.

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New light shed on cosmic dark ages

Remnants of the first stars have helped astronomers get closer to unlocking the ‘dark ages’ of the cosmos.

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and California Institute of Technology are using light emitted from massive black holes called quasars to ‘light up’ gases released by the early stars, which exploded billions of years ago. As a result, they have found what they refer to as the missing link in the evolution of the chemical universe.

The first stars are believed to hold the key to one of the mysteries of the early cosmos: how it evolved from being predominantly filled with hydrogen and helium to a universe rich in heavier elements, such as oxygen, carbon and iron.

However, although telescopes can detect light reaching Earth from billions of light-years away, enabling astronomers to look back in time over almost all of the 13.7-billion-year history of the universe, one observational frontier remains: the so-called ‘dark ages’. This period, lasting half a billion years after the Big Bang, ended when the first stars were born and is inaccessible to telescopes because the clouds of gas that filled the universe were not transparent to visible and infrared light.

‘We have effectively been able to peer into the dark ages using the light emitted from a quasar in a distant galaxy billions of years ago. The light provides a backdrop against which any gas cloud in its path can be measured,’ said Professor Max Pettini at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy (IoA), who led the research with PhD student Ryan Cooke.

Taking precision measurements using the world’s largest telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, the researchers have used Quasar Absorption Line Spectroscopy to identify gas clouds called ‘damped Lyman alpha systems’ (DLAs). Among the thousands of DLAs known, the team have succeeded in finding a rare cloud released from a star very early in the history of the universe.

‘As judged by its composition, the gas is a remnant of a star that exploded as much as 13 billion years ago,’ Pettini explained. ‘It provides the first analysis of the interior of one of the universe’s earliest stars.’

The results provide experimental observations of a time that has so far been possible to model only with computers simulations, and will help astronomers to fill gaps in understanding how the chemical universe evolved.

‘We discovered tiny amounts of elements present in the cloud in proportions that are very different from their relative proportions in normal stars today. Most significantly, the ratio of carbon to iron is 35 times greater than measured in the Sun,’ Pettini said. ‘The composition enables us to infer that the gas was released by a star 25 times more massive than the Sun and originally consisting of only hydrogen and helium. In effect this is a fossil record that provides us with a missing link back to the early universe.’

The study was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by Ryan Cooke, Max Pettini and Regina Jorgenson at the IoA, together with Charles Steidel and Gwen Rudie at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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Britain’s first ‘modern’ Antarctic expedition

75th anniversary of expedition that ushered in a new age of polar exploration

The expedition that laid the foundations for current British scientific endeavours in the Antarctic, and pioneered techniques which continue to this day, is being celebrated at Cambridge University’s Polar Museum.

Return to Antarctica: The British Graham Land Expedition 1934–1937 is the first major historical exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) since its £1.75m redevelopment last year.

‘Lummo’, the Falkland Islands cat that travelled aboard the ‘Penola’ to and from Antarctica. Photographer: B.B. Roberts. Photo credit: SPRI/B.B. RobertsThe British Graham Land Expedition (BGLE) followed a hiatus after the major expeditions of Scott and Shackleton. As American expeditions were eroding imperial claims to Antarctica; the British government supported the BGLE in an attempt to reassert British sovereignty, to undertake scientific research and to investigate the economic possibilities of the region.

The BGLE was also supported by the Royal Geographical Society and the Scott Polar Research Institute and advised by veterans of Scott’s and Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions.

The BGLE’s 16 keen young scientists, explorers and supporting military officers combined traditional Inuit clothing and sea-ice travel techniques with modern developments in radio and aviation. Seals were a major source of food, along with modern dietary supplements.

There were no outbreaks of scurvy and the men returned in excellent health. Routes were reconnoitred by air; then dog sledges would carry the men and equipment for detailed surveys and scientific research. Today, dogs have been replaced by snowmobiles but the principal remains: an overview from the air or space followed by a ground party to verify and further explore an area.

The exhibition at the Polar Museum combines historic artefacts, images and rare archival material with stories of the men, their endeavours, scientific research and daily lives as they lived on the frozen continent. It also celebrates ‘Lummo’, the first cat to survive a trip to Antarctica, returning to a well-earned retirement in Woking.

Led by an Australian, John Rymill, the BGLE included: the Rev Launcelot Fleming, who served as Director of SPRI and became chaplain to the Royal Family; Colin Bertram, an SPRI Director; Brian Roberts, who advocated the Antarctic Treaty which set aside Antarctica as a region of peace and science; Lt RED Ryder, later awarded a VC for leading the raid on St Nazaire, and Duncan Carse, who became the voice of the BBC’s Dick Barton Special Agent.

Upon their return, after the three-year expedition, every member of the team was awarded the Polar Medal for their work studying seals and birds, the discovery of fossil plants and their mapping of much of the coastline of Graham Land.

Perhaps the most significant discovery of the BGLE was that the channels previously reported by Australian and American aviators between the Bellingshausen and Weddell Seas did not exist. The BGLE had sailed to an archipelago, they returned from the Antarctic Peninsula.

Scott Polar Research Institute’s Exhibitions Officer, Bryan Lintott said: ‘The BGLE exhibition at the Polar Museum offers the public an opportunity to discover one of Britain’s most successful but least known Antarctic expeditions and know more about the extraordinary men, loyal dogs and one very tough cat that made it possible.’

Return to Antarctica: The British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37 runs until 30 April, 2011.

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Ancient body clock discovered that helps to keep all
living things on time

New research gives insight into circadian clock.

The mechanism that controls the internal 24-hour clock of all forms of life from human cells to algae has been identified by scientists.

Not only does the research provide important insight into health-related problems linked to individuals with disrupted clocks – such as pilots and shift workers – it also indicates that the 24-hour circadian clock found in human cells is the same as that found in algae and dates back millions of years to early life on Earth.

Two new studies out in the journal Nature from the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh give insight into the circadian clock which controls patterns of daily and seasonal activity, from sleep cycles to butterfly migrations to flower opening.

One study, from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Metabolic Science, has for the first time identified 24-hour rhythms in red blood cells. This is significant because circadian rhythms have always been assumed to be linked to DNA and gene activity, but – unlike most of the other cells in the body – red blood cells do not have DNA.

Akhilesh Reddy, from the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, said: ‘We know that clocks exist in all our cells; they’re hard-wired into the cell. Imagine what we’d be like without a clock to guide us through our days. The cell would be in the same position if it didn’t have a clock to coordinate its daily activities.

‘The implications of this for health are manifold. We already know that disrupted clocks – for example, caused by shift-work and jet-lag – are associated with metabolic disorders such as diabetes, mental health problems and even cancer. By furthering our knowledge of how the 24-hour clock in cells works, we hope that the links to these disorders – and others – will be made clearer. This will, in the longer term, lead to new therapies that we couldn’t even have thought about a couple of years ago.’

For the study, the scientists, funded by the Wellcome Trust, incubated purified red blood cells from healthy volunteers in the dark and at body temperature, and sampled them at regular intervals for several days. They then examined the levels of biochemical markers – proteins called peroxiredoxins – that are produced in high levels in blood and found that they underwent a 24-hour cycle. Peroxiredoxins are found in virtually all known organisms.

A further study, by scientists working together at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge, and the Observatoire Oceanologique in Banyuls, France, found a similar 24-hour cycle in marine algae, indicating that internal body clocks have always been important, even for ancient forms of life.

The researchers in this study found the rhythms by sampling the peroxiredoxins in algae at regular intervals over several days. When the algae were kept in darkness, their DNA was no longer active, but the algae kept their circadian clocks ticking without active genes. Scientists had thought that the circadian clock was driven by gene activity, but both the algae and the red blood cells kept time without it.

Andrew Millar of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: ‘This groundbreaking research shows that body clocks are ancient mechanisms that have stayed with us through a billion years of evolution. They must be far more important and sophisticated than we previously realised. More work is needed to determine how and why these clocks developed in people – and most likely all other living things on Earth – and what role they play in controlling our bodies.’

Additional funding for the studies was provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche, and the National Institute of Health Research.

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Extra testosterone reduces your empathy

A new study from Utrecht and Cambridge Universities has for the first time found that an administration of testosterone under the tongue in volunteers negatively affects a person’s ability to ‘mind read’, an indication of empathy. The findings are published this week in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

In addition, the effects of testosterone administration are predicted by a fetal marker of prenatal testosterone, the 2D:4D ratio. The study has important implications for the androgen theory of autism (testosterone is an androgen) and confirms earlier rodent research that shows that testosterone in early brain development organizes the activation of the very hormone in later life.

Professor Jack van Honk at the University of Utrecht and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge designed the study that was conducted in Utrecht. They used the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ task as the test of mind reading, which tests how well someone can infer what a person is thinking or feeling from photographs of facial expressions from around the eyes.

Mind reading is one aspect of empathy, a skill that shows significant sex differences in favour of females. They tested 16 young women from the general population, since women on average have lower levels of testosterone than men. The decision to test just females was to maximize the possibility of seeing a reduction in their levels of empathy.

The researchers not only found that administration of testosterone leads to a significant reduction in mind reading, but that this effect is powerfully predicted by the 2D:4D digit ratio, a marker of prenatal testosterone. Those people with the most masculinized 2D:4D ratios showed the most pronounced reduction in the ability to mind read.

Jack van Honk said: ‘We are excited by this finding because it suggests testosterone levels prenatally prime later testosterone effects on the mind.’

Simon Baron-Cohen commented: ‘This study contributes to our knowledge of how small hormonal differences can have far-reaching effects on empathy.’

The new study has several important implications. First, that current levels of testosterone directly affect the ability to read someone else’s mind. This may help explain why on average women perform better on such tests than men, since men on average produce more testosterone than women.

Second, that the digit ratio (2D:4D), a marker of fetal testosterone, predicts the extent to which later testosterone has this effect. This suggests testosterone levels in the womb have an ‘organizing’ or long-range effect on later brain function. Finally, given that people with autism have difficulties in mind reading, and that autism affects males more often than females, the study provides further support for the androgen theory of autism.

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Diabetes drug improves survival from the life-threatening infectious disease, melioidosis

Scientists have identified a diabetes drug which halves the mortality rate of a deadly infectious disease found throughout Southeast Asia and Northern Australia.

Melioidosis, caused by a soil dwelling bacterium (Burkholderia pseudomallei) that is present in certain regions of the world, results in severe infections, including bloodstream infections and pneumonia. Death results in up to 40% of affected individuals despite antibiotic treatment. New research by a multinational team from the United Kingdom, Thailand, Singapore and The Netherlands, however, has found that people taking the diabetes drug glibenclamide (called glyburide in the US) have half the mortality of other patients with melioidosis.

The investigators were supported by the Wellcome Trust Thailand/Laos Major Overseas Programme to study 1,160 patients with melioidosis in northeast Thailand, and found that death from melioidosis was only 28% in diabetic patients taking glyburide, compared to a mortality rate of nearly one half in other patient groups including those on other diabetes medication and non-diabetics. A study of white blood cells from people taking glibenclamide, performed by collaborators at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, also showed less evidence of activity relating to inflammation.

‘Roughly half of all patients with melioidosis have diabetes as a risk factor,’ says Dr Gavin Koh, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of Cambridge and first author of the study. ‘Our Thai collaborators realised several years ago that diabetics are more likely to get melioidosis, but are less likely to die from their infection compared with non-diabetics. Our research shows that this improvement in survival is not an effect of diabetes itself, but of glibenclamide which is often prescribed to control the high blood sugar of diabetes.’

Glibenclamide does not appear to have a direct effect on the bacterium, and researchers hypothesise that its benefit comes from modulation of the human immune response to infection. This raises the important possibility that it might have the same benefit in people infected with other pathogens.

‘Glibenclamide cannot be given safely to people who present to hospital with severe bacterial infection who are not diabetic,’ cautions Professor Peacock, Professor of Clinical Microbiology in the Department of Medicine and senior investigator on the study, ‘but we hope that our findings will result in further research to define the mechanisms by which the drug increases patient survival, and to the development of related drugs that share these mechanisms but that do not lower blood sugar levels and can be given safely to all patients with severe sepsis.’

The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust of Great Britain and was published online by Clinical Infectious Diseases.

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Happy children make happy adults

New research links well-being in adolescence with life satisfaction in adulthood.

Being a ‘happy’ teenager is linked to increased well-being in adulthood, new research finds.

Much is known about the associations between a troubled childhood and mental health problems, but little research has examined the effect of a positive childhood. For the first time, researchers from the University of Cambridge and the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing have analysed the link between a positive adolescence and well-being in midlife.

Using information from 2,776 individuals who participated in the 1946 British birth cohort study, the scientists tested associations between having a positive childhood and well-being in adulthood.

A ‘positive’ childhood was based on teacher evaluations of students’ levels of happiness, friendship and energy at the ages of 13 and 15. A student was given a positive point for each of the following four items – whether the child was ‘very popular with other children’, ‘unusually happy and contented’, ‘makes friends extremely easily’ and ‘extremely energetic, never tired’. Teachers also rated conduct problems (restlessness, daydreaming, disobedience, lying, etc) and emotional problems (anxiety, fearfulness, diffidence, avoidance of attention, etc).

The researchers then linked these ratings to the individuals’ mental health, work experience, relationships and social activities several decades later. They found that teenagers rated positively by their teachers were significantly more likely than those who received no positive ratings to have higher levels of well-being later in life, including a higher work satisfaction, more frequent contact with family and friends, and more regular engagement in social and leisure activities. Happy children were also much less likely than others to develop mental disorders throughout their lives – 60% less likely than young teens that had no positive ratings.

The study not only failed to find a link between being a happy child and an increased likelihood of becoming married, they found that the people who had been happy children were actually more likely to get divorced. One possible factor suggested by the researchers is that happier people have higher self-esteem or self-efficacy and are therefore more willing and able to leave an unhappy marriage.

‘The benefits to individuals, families and to society of good mental health, positive relationships and satisfying work are likely to be substantial,’ said Professor Felicia Huppert, one of the authors of the paper and Director of the Well-being Institute at the University of Cambridge. ‘The findings support the view that even at this time of great financial hardship, policymakers should prioritise the well-being of our children so they have the best possible start in life.’

Dr Marcus Richards, co-author of the paper from the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing, said: ‘Most longitudinal studies focus on the negative impact of early mental problems, but the 1946 birth cohort also shows clear and very long-lasting positive consequences of mental well-being in childhood.’

For the study, the researchers adjusted for social class of origin, childhood intelligence and education.

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