New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 57 new articles in PLoS ONE this week, and it is hard to choose which ones to highlight!

Superfast Vocal Muscles Control Song Production in Songbirds:

Birdsong is a widely used model for vocal learning and human speech, which exhibits high temporal and acoustic diversity. Rapid acoustic modulations are thought to arise from the vocal organ, the syrinx, by passive interactions between the two independent sound generators or intrinsic nonlinear dynamics of sound generating structures. Additionally, direct neuromuscular control could produce such rapid and precisely timed acoustic features if syringeal muscles exhibit rare superfast muscle contractile kinetics. However, no direct evidence exists that avian vocal muscles can produce modulations at such high rates. Here, we show that 1) syringeal muscles are active in phase with sound modulations during song over 200 Hz, 2) direct stimulation of the muscles in situ produces sound modulations at the frequency observed during singing, and that 3) syringeal muscles produce mechanical work at the required frequencies and up to 250 Hz in vitro. The twitch kinematics of these so-called superfast muscles are the fastest measured in any vertebrate muscle. Superfast vocal muscles enable birds to directly control the generation of many observed rapid acoustic changes and to actuate the millisecond precision of neural activity into precise temporal vocal control. Furthermore, birds now join the list of vertebrate classes in which superfast muscle kinetics evolved independently for acoustic communication.

Birds Reveal their Personality when Singing:

Individual differences in social behaviour may have consequences for mate choice and sexual signalling, because partners should develop preferences for personalities that maximize reproductive output. Here we propose that behavioural traits involved in sexual advertisement may serve as good indicators of personality, which is fundamental for sexual selection to operate on temperament. Bird song has a prominent and well-established role in sexual selection, and it displays considerable variation among individuals with a potentially strong personality component. Therefore, we predicted that features of song would correlate with estimates of personality. In a field study of free-living male collared flycatchers, Ficedula albicollis, we characterised personality based on the exploration of an altered breeding environment, and based on the risk taken when a potential predator was approaching during a simulated territorial interaction. We found that explorative and risk-taker individuals consistently sang at lower song posts than shy individuals in the presence of a human observer. Moreover, males from lower posts established pair-bonds relatively faster than males from higher posts. Our results may demonstrate that risk taking during singing correlates with risk taking during aggression and with exploration, thus personality may be manifested in different contexts involving sexual advertisement. These findings are in accordance with the hypothesis that the male's balance between investment in reproduction and risk taking is reflected in sexual displays, and it may be important information for choosy females that seek partners with personality traits enhancing breeding success.

Can Machines Think? Interaction and Perspective Taking with Robots Investigated via fMRI:

When our PC goes on strike again we tend to curse it as if it were a human being. Why and under which circumstances do we attribute human-like properties to machines? Although humans increasingly interact directly with machines it remains unclear whether humans implicitly attribute intentions to them and, if so, whether such interactions resemble human-human interactions on a neural level. In social cognitive neuroscience the ability to attribute intentions and desires to others is being referred to as having a Theory of Mind (ToM). With the present study we investigated whether an increase of human-likeness of interaction partners modulates the participants' ToM associated cortical activity. By means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (subjects n = 20) we investigated cortical activity modulation during highly interactive human-robot game. Increasing degrees of human-likeness for the game partner were introduced by means of a computer partner, a functional robot, an anthropomorphic robot and a human partner. The classical iterated prisoner's dilemma game was applied as experimental task which allowed for an implicit detection of ToM associated cortical activity. During the experiment participants always played against a random sequence unknowingly to them. Irrespective of the surmised interaction partners' responses participants indicated having experienced more fun and competition in the interaction with increasing human-like features of their partners. Parametric modulation of the functional imaging data revealed a highly significant linear increase of cortical activity in the medial frontal cortex as well as in the right temporo-parietal junction in correspondence with the increase of human-likeness of the interaction partner (computer

Soldier-Specific Modification of the Mandibular Motor Neurons in Termites:

Social insects exhibit a variety of caste-specific behavioral tendencies that constitute the basis of division of labor within the colony. In termites, the soldier caste display distinctive defense behaviors, such as aggressively attacking enemies with well-developed mandibles, while the other castes retreat into the colony without exhibiting any aggressive response. It is thus likely that some form of soldier-specific neuronal modification exists in termites. In this study, the authors compared the brain (cerebral ganglion) and the suboesophageal ganglion (SOG) of soldiers and pseudergates (workers) in the damp-wood termite, Hodotermopsis sjostedti. The size of the SOG was significantly larger in soldiers than in pseudergates, but no difference in brain size was apparent between castes. Furthermore, mandibular nerves were thicker in soldiers than in pseudergates. Retrograde staining revealed that the somata sizes of the mandibular motor neurons (MdMNs) in soldiers were more than twice as large as those of pseudergates. The enlargement of MdMNs was also observed in individuals treated with a juvenile hormone analogue (JHA), indicating that MdMNs become enlarged in response to juvenile hormone (JH) action during soldier differentiation. This enlargement is likely to have two functions: a behavioral function in which soldier termites will be able to defend more effectively through relatively faster and stronger mandibular movements, and a developmental function that associates with the development of soldier-specific mandibular muscle morphogenesis in termite head. The soldier-specific enlargement of mandibular motor neurons was observed in all examined species in five termite families that have different mechanisms of defense, suggesting that such neuronal modification was already present in the common ancestor of termites and is significant for soldier function.

Lateral Transfer of a Lectin-Like Antifreeze Protein Gene in Fishes:

Fishes living in icy seawater are usually protected from freezing by endogenous antifreeze proteins (AFPs) that bind to ice crystals and stop them from growing. The scattered distribution of five highly diverse AFP types across phylogenetically disparate fish species is puzzling. The appearance of radically different AFPs in closely related species has been attributed to the rapid, independent evolution of these proteins in response to natural selection caused by sea level glaciations within the last 20 million years. In at least one instance the same type of simple repetitive AFP has independently originated in two distant species by convergent evolution. But, the isolated occurrence of three very similar type II AFPs in three distantly related species (herring, smelt and sea raven) cannot be explained by this mechanism. These globular, lectin-like AFPs have a unique disulfide-bonding pattern, and share up to 85% identity in their amino acid sequences, with regions of even higher identity in their genes. A thorough search of current databases failed to find a homolog in any other species with greater than 40% amino acid sequence identity. Consistent with this result, genomic Southern blots showed the lectin-like AFP gene was absent from all other fish species tested. The remarkable conservation of both intron and exon sequences, the lack of correlation between evolutionary distance and mutation rate, and the pattern of silent vs non-silent codon changes make it unlikely that the gene for this AFP pre-existed but was lost from most branches of the teleost radiation. We propose instead that lateral gene transfer has resulted in the occurrence of the type II AFPs in herring, smelt and sea raven and allowed these species to survive in an otherwise lethal niche.

Hedonic Taste in Drosophila Revealed by Olfactory Receptors Expressed in Taste Neurons:

Taste and olfaction are each tuned to a unique set of chemicals in the outside world, and their corresponding sensory spaces are mapped in different areas in the brain. This dichotomy matches categories of receptors detecting molecules either in the gaseous or in the liquid phase in terrestrial animals. However, in Drosophila olfactory and gustatory neurons express receptors which belong to the same family of 7-transmembrane domain proteins. Striking overlaps exist in their sequence structure and in their expression pattern, suggesting that there might be some functional commonalities between them. In this work, we tested the assumption that Drosophila olfactory receptor proteins are compatible with taste neurons by ectopically expressing an olfactory receptor (OR22a and OR83b) for which ligands are known. Using electrophysiological recordings, we show that the transformed taste neurons are excited by odor ligands as by their cognate tastants. The wiring of these neurons to the brain seems unchanged and no additional connections to the antennal lobe were detected. The odor ligands detected by the olfactory receptor acquire a new hedonic value, inducing appetitive or aversive behaviors depending on the categories of taste neurons in which they are expressed i.e. sugar- or bitter-sensing cells expressing either Gr5a or Gr66a receptors. Taste neurons expressing ectopic olfactory receptors can sense odors at close range either in the aerial phase or by contact, in a lipophilic phase. The responses of the transformed taste neurons to the odorant are similar to those obtained with tastants. The hedonic value attributed to tastants is directly linked to the taste neurons in which their receptors are expressed.

Effects of Unexpected Chords and of Performer's Expression on Brain Responses and Electrodermal Activity:

There is lack of neuroscientific studies investigating music processing with naturalistic stimuli, and brain responses to real music are, thus, largely unknown. This study investigates event-related brain potentials (ERPs), skin conductance responses (SCRs) and heart rate (HR) elicited by unexpected chords of piano sonatas as they were originally arranged by composers, and as they were played by professional pianists. From the musical excerpts played by the pianists (with emotional expression), we also created versions without variations in tempo and loudness (without musical expression) to investigate effects of musical expression on ERPs and SCRs. Compared to expected chords, unexpected chords elicited an early right anterior negativity (ERAN, reflecting music-syntactic processing) and an N5 (reflecting processing of meaning information) in the ERPs, as well as clear changes in the SCRs (reflecting that unexpected chords also elicited emotional responses). The ERAN was not influenced by emotional expression, whereas N5 potentials elicited by chords in general (regardless of their chord function) differed between the expressive and the non-expressive condition. These results show that the neural mechanisms of music-syntactic processing operate independently of the emotional qualities of a stimulus, justifying the use of stimuli without emotional expression to investigate the cognitive processing of musical structure. Moreover, the data indicate that musical expression affects the neural mechanisms underlying the processing of musical meaning. Our data are the first to reveal influences of musical performance on ERPs and SCRs, and to show physiological responses to unexpected chords in naturalistic music.

Lifespan Mental Activity Predicts Diminished Rate of Hippocampal Atrophy:

Epidemiological studies suggest that complex mental activity may reduce the risk for dementia, however an underlying mechanism remains unclear. Our objective was to determine whether individual differences in lifespan complex mental activity are linked to altered rates of hippocampal atrophy independent of global measures of neurodegeneration. Thirty seven healthy older individuals had their complex mental activity levels estimated using the Lifetime of Experiences Questionnaire (LEQ) and completed serial MRI investigations at baseline and three years follow-up. Hippocampal volume and semi-automatic quantitation of whole brain volume (WBV) and white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) were compared at both time points. Higher LEQ scores were correlated with hippocampal volume independent of covariates at the three year follow-up stage (r = 0.43, p = 0.012). Moreover, those with higher LEQ scores experienced less hippocampal atrophy over the follow-up period (r = 0.41, p = 0.02). High LEQ individuals had less than half the hippocampal volume decline of low LEQ individuals in a multivariate analysis (F = 4.47, p = 0.042). No parallel changes were found in measures of WBV and WMHs. High level of complex mental activity across the lifespan was correlated with a reduced rate of hippocampal atrophy. This finding could not be explained by general differences in intracranial volume, larger hippocampi at baseline, presence of hypertensive disease, gender or low mood. Our results suggest that neuroprotection in medial temporal lobe may be one mechanism underlying the link between mental activity and lower rates of dementia observed in population-based studies. Additional studies are required to further explore this novel finding.

Waist Circumference and Body Mass Index as Predictors of Health Care Costs:

In the present study we analyze the relationship between body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference (WC) and future health care costs. On the basis of the relation between these anthropometric measures and mortality, we hypothesized that for all levels of BMI increased WC implies added future health care costs (Hypothesis 1) and for given levels of WC increased BMI entails reduced future health care costs (Hypothesis 2). We furthermore assessed whether a combination of the two measures predicts health care costs better than either individual measure. Data were obtained from the Danish prospective cohort study Diet, Cancer and Health. The population includes 15,334 men and 16,506 women 50 to 64 years old recruited in 1996 to 1997. The relationship between future health care costs and BMI and WC in combination was analyzed by use of categorized and continuous analyses. The analysis confirms Hypothesis 1, reflecting that an increased level of abdominal fat for a given BMI gives higher health care costs. Hypothesis 2, that BMI had a protective effect for a given WC, was only confirmed in the continuous analysis and for a subgroup of women (BMI

A Molecular Study of Microbe Transfer between Distant Environments:

Environments and their organic content are generally not static and isolated, but in a constant state of exchange and interaction with each other. Through physical or biological processes, organisms, especially microbes, may be transferred between environments whose characteristics may be quite different. The transferred microbes may not survive in their new environment, but their DNA will be deposited. In this study, we compare two environmental sequencing projects to find molecular evidence of transfer of microbes over vast geographical distances. By studying synonymous nucleotide composition, oligomer frequency and orthology between predicted genes in metagenomics data from two environments, terrestrial and aquatic, and by correlating with phylogenetic mappings, we find that both environments are likely to contain trace amounts of microbes which have been far removed from their original habitat. We also suggest a bias in direction from soil to sea, which is consistent with the cycles of planetary wind and water. Our findings support the Baas-Becking hypothesis formulated in 1934, which states that due to dispersion and population sizes, microbes are likely to be found in widely disparate environments. Furthermore, the availability of genetic material from distant environments is a possible font of novel gene functions for lateral gene transfer.

Phase Locking Induces Scale-Free Topologies in Networks of Coupled Oscillators:

An initial unsynchronized ensemble of networking phase oscillators is further subjected to a growing process where a set of forcing oscillators, each one of them following the dynamics of a frequency pacemaker, are added to the pristine graph. Linking rules based on dynamical criteria are followed in the attachment process to force phase locking of the network with the external pacemaker. We show that the eventual locking occurs in correspondence to the arousal of a scale-free degree distribution in the original graph.

Professional and Home-Made Face Masks Reduce Exposure to Respiratory Infections among the General Population:

Governments are preparing for a potential influenza pandemic. Therefore they need data to assess the possible impact of interventions. Face-masks worn by the general population could be an accessible and affordable intervention, if effective when worn under routine circumstances. We assessed transmission reduction potential provided by personal respirators, surgical masks and home-made masks when worn during a variety of activities by healthy volunteers and a simulated patient. All types of masks reduced aerosol exposure, relatively stable over time, unaffected by duration of wear or type of activity, but with a high degree of individual variation. Personal respirators were more efficient than surgical masks, which were more efficient than home-made masks. Regardless of mask type, children were less well protected. Outward protection (mask wearing by a mechanical head) was less effective than inward protection (mask wearing by healthy volunteers). Any type of general mask use is likely to decrease viral exposure and infection risk on a population level, in spite of imperfect fit and imperfect adherence, personal respirators providing most protection. Masks worn by patients may not offer as great a degree of protection against aerosol transmission.

A Visual Metaphor Describing Neural Dynamics in Schizophrenia:

In many scientific disciplines the use of a metaphor as an heuristic aid is not uncommon. A well known example in somatic medicine is the 'defense army metaphor' used to characterize the immune system. In fact, probably a large part of the everyday work of doctors consists of 'translating' scientific and clinical information (i.e. causes of disease, percentage of succes versus risk of side-effects) into information tailored to the needs and capacities of the individual patient. The ability to do so in an effective way is at least partly what makes a clinician a good communicator. Schizophrenia is a severe psychiatric disorder which affects approximately 1% of the population. Over the last two decades a large amount of molecular-biological, imaging and genetic data have been accumulated regarding the biological underpinnings of schizophrenia. However, it remains difficult to understand how the characteristic symptoms of schizophrenia such as hallucinations and delusions are related to disturbances on the molecular-biological level. In general, psychiatry seems to lack a conceptual framework with sufficient explanatory power to link the mental- and molecular-biological domains.
Here, we present an essay-like study in which we propose to use visualized concepts stemming from the theory on dynamical complex systems as a 'visual metaphor' to bridge the mental- and molecular-biological domains in schizophrenia. We first describe a computer model of neural information processing; we show how the information processing in this model can be visualized, using concepts from the theory on complex systems. We then describe two computer models which have been used to investigate the primary theory on schizophrenia, the neurodevelopmental model, and show how disturbed information processing in these two computer models can be presented in terms of the visual metaphor previously described. Finally, we describe the effects of dopamine neuromodulation, of which disturbances have been frequently described in schizophrenia, in terms of the same visualized metaphor. The conceptual framework and metaphor described offers a heuristic tool to understand the relationship between the mental- and molecular-biological domains in an intuitive way. The concepts we present may serve to facilitate communication between researchers, clinicians and patients.

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tags: researchblogging.org, birdsong, personality traits, mate choice, sexual selection, risk taking, European collared flycatcher, Ficedula albicollis, László Zsolt Garamszegi Male European collared flycatcher, Ficedula albicollis, singing. Image: Beijershamn Ãland, 23 May 2004 [link]. Canon EOS…
There are 22 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, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with…
Lots of new articles in four of seven PLoS journals. 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, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and…
There are 20 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…

On "Lateral Transfer of a Lectin-Like Antifreeze Protein Gene in Fishes.

Makes me wonder if such lateral transfers might be more common than we think. Perhaps such an event accounts for how dogs acquired their language skills. If being able to understand what humans say ever became advantageous for pigeons and rats, would we see that ability becoming apparent in those animals?