Alcohol Boosts the Human Brain — if You Drink a Lot

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largeDiscovered: Alcohol helps accelerate the brains of heavy drinkers; Self-image affects self-expression; Antarctic lake hid evidence of never-before-seen life forms; Ancient humans liked to hike.

Alcohol helps accelerate the brains of heavy drinkers. How we experience alcohol — that is, as a depressant which disinhibits us — tends to inform the way we view long-term binge drinking. But according to a group of Yale University researches, alcohol affects the brains of heavy drinkers differently than the brains of more moderate imbibers. Specifically, alcohol increases the capacity of their brains to burn acetate, a chemical released when the body metabolizes alcohol. “Heavy drinkers transported more acetate to their brains and burned the chemical about twice as fast as light drinkers,”Science News notes. “Like a car that can switch to ethanol when it runs out of gasoline, heavy drinkers’ brains could tap energy from an alternate fuel source.” [Science News]

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Self-image affects self-expression. Does the way you think you look bear on the way you act? “There’s no easy way to test this in the real world,” the New Scientist acknowledges. That didn’t stop a group of Russian researchers from trying an outre method on several volunteers, who the group placed before a drum set and equipped with a virtual-reality headset. “Volunteers’ drumming patterns became more intricate when they were represented by a more casually dressed, dark-skinned avatar, as compared to a formally dressed white-skinned character,” the researchers discovered. The verdict portends a slightly scary virtual future: “This body-ownership illusion can lead to behavioural and cognitive changes that depend on the appearance of the virtual body.” [New Scientist]

Antarctic lake hid evidence of never-before-seen life forms. It’s not very often that scientists encounter evidence of new life forms, much less in subglacial lake in Antartica. Russian scientists studying Lake Vostok, in central Antarctica, took materials from the lake and, after cleaning it, discovered “unclassified” DNA. “After excluding all known contaminants, we discovered bacterial DNA that does not match any known species listed in global databanks,” on of the scientists told a Russian news organization. According to CBS, the discovery places Russia in competition with a few other countries: “The United States took a sample from the shallower Lake Whillans earlier this year and is attempting to prove the same thing, while Great Brittan’s attempt to drill at Lake Ellsworth was called off due to technical problems with drilling.” [CBS]

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Ancient humans liked to hike. To what degree did ancient humans, you know, move around? To answer that question, biological anthropologists at the University of Cambridge studied fossils dated to the Stone Age, looking for signs of stress in bone fragments. “The Stone Age crowd moved around considerably more than southern Africans from a few thousand years ago who hunted over an area of 5,200 to 7,800 square kilometers,” according to Science News, in comparison to modern athletes who run a few hundred kilometers over an entire week. Such mobility is thought to have shortened the lifespans of both humans and Neanderthals, even though it’s unclear why, exactly, they moved around so much: “Anthropologists don’t know what kept ancient people and Neandertals in constant motion.” [Science News] SOURCE

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