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New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 19 new articles in PLoS ONE today. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week – you go and look for your own favourites:

Phase Shifting Capacity of the Circadian Pacemaker Determined by the SCN Neuronal Network Organization:

In mammals, a major circadian pacemaker that drives daily rhythms is located in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), at the base of the hypothalamus. The SCN receive direct light input via the retino-hypothalamic tract. Light during the early night induces phase delays of circadian rhythms while during the late night it leads to phase advances. The effects of light on the circadian system are strongly dependent on the photoperiod to which animals are exposed. An explanation for this phenomenon is currently lacking. We recorded running wheel activity in C57 mice and observed large amplitude phase shifts in short photoperiods and small shifts in long photoperiods. We investigated whether these different light responses under short and long days are expressed within the SCN by electrophysiological recordings of electrical impulse frequency in SCN slices. Application of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) induced sustained increments in electrical activity that were not significantly different in the slices from long and short photoperiods. These responses led to large phase shifts in slices from short days and small phase shifts in slices from long days. An analysis of neuronal subpopulation activity revealed that in short days the amplitude of the rhythm was larger than in long days. The data indicate that the photoperiodic dependent phase responses are intrinsic to the SCN. In contrast to earlier predictions from limit cycle theory, we observed large phase shifting responses in high amplitude rhythms in slices from short days, and small shifts in low amplitude rhythms in slices from long days. We conclude that the photoperiodic dependent phase responses are determined by the SCN and propose that synchronization among SCN neurons enhances the phase shifting capacity of the circadian system.

A Specialized Odor Memory Buffer in Primary Olfactory Cortex:

The neural substrates of olfactory working memory are unknown. We addressed the questions of whether olfactory working memory involves a verbal representation of the odor, or a sensory image of the odor, or both, and the location of the neural substrates of these processes. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure activity in the brains of subjects who were remembering either nameable or unnameable odorants. We found a double dissociation whereby remembering nameable odorants was reflected in sustained activity in prefrontal language areas, and remembering unnameable odorants was reflected in sustained activity in primary olfactory cortex. These findings suggest a novel dedicated mechanism in primary olfactory cortex, where odor information is maintained in temporary storage to subserve ongoing tasks.

A Fast Na+/Ca2+-Based Action Potential in a Marine Diatom:

Electrical impulses in animals play essential roles in co-ordinating an array of physiological functions including movement, secretion, environmental sensing and development. Underpinning many of these electrical signals is a fast Na+-based action potential that has been fully characterised only in cells associated with the neuromuscular systems of multicellular animals. Such rapid action potentials are thought to have evolved with the first metazoans, with cnidarians being the earliest representatives. The present study demonstrates that a unicellular protist, the marine diatom Odontella sinensis, can also generate a fast Na+/Ca2+ based action potential that has remarkably similar biophysical and pharmacological properties to invertebrates and vertebrate cardiac and skeletal muscle cells. The kinetic, ionic and pharmacological properties of the rapid diatom action potential were examined using single electrode current and voltage clamp techniques. Overall, the characteristics of the fast diatom currents most closely resemble those of vertebrate and invertebrate muscle Na+/Ca2+ currents. This is the first demonstration of voltage-activated Na+ channels and the capacity to generate fast Na+-based action potentials in a unicellular photosynthetic organism. The biophysical and pharmacological characteristics together with the presence of a voltage activated Na+/Ca2+ channel homologue in the recently sequenced genome of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, provides direct evidence supporting the hypothesis that this rapid signalling mechanism arose in ancestral unicellular eukaryotes and has been retained in at least two phylogenetically distant lineages of eukaryotes; opisthokonts and the stramenopiles. The functional role of the fast animal-like action potential in diatoms remains to be elucidated but is likely involved in rapid environmental sensing of these widespread and successful marine protists.

Psychological Typhoon Eye in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake:

On May 12, 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale jolted Wenchuan, China, leading to 69,227 deaths and 374,643 injured, with 17,923 listed as missing as of Sept. 25, 2008, and shook the whole nation. We assessed the devastating effects on people’s post-earthquake concern about safety and health. From June 4 to July 15, 2008, we surveyed a convenience sample of 2,262 adults on their post-earthquake concern about safety and health. Residents in non-devastated areas (Fujian and Hunan Provinces, and Beijing) and devastated areas (Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) responded to a questionnaire of 5 questions regarding safety measures, epidemic disease, medical workers, psychological workers, and medication. The ANOVAs showed a significant effect of residential devastation level on the estimated number of safety measures needed, the estimated probability of the outbreak of an epidemic, and the estimated number of medical and psychological workers needed (Ps<0.001). The post-earthquake concern decreased significantly as the level of residential devastation increased. Because of the similarity with the meteorological phenomenon of the eye of a typhoon, we dubbed these findings a "Psychological Typhoon Eye": the closer to the center of the devastated areas, the less the concern about safety and health a resident felt. Contrary to common perception and ripple effect that the impact of an unfortunate event decays gradually as ripples spread outward from a center, a "Psychological Typhoon Eye" effect was observed where the post-earthquake concern was at its lowest level in the extremely devastated areas. The resultant findings may have implications for Chinese governmental strategies for putting "psychological comfort" into effect.